Cape officials ask staff to draft tax proposal

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The Cape Girardeau City Council on Monday instructed city manager Doug Leslie to draw up a possible fire sales tax measure and spell out what it would fund.

While council members are divided over whether to ask voters to approve a permanent tax, they'll consider at their Jan. 5 meeting whether to put any measure on the April ballot.

Mayor Jay Knudtson believes voters won't approve a permanent tax, but other council members don't want to limit the tax.

Councilman Hugh White isn't sold on a fire tax. He said the council should look at putting together a tax package that would address all of the city's budget needs, not just those in the public safety area. A fire tax, he said, is nothing more than a "Band-Aid."

Leslie said the council needs to give initial approval to a ballot measure at the Jan. 5 meeting in order to get it on the April ballot.

Knudtson suggested voters rejected tax measures in April of this year partly because the measures lacked sunset clauses that would have automatically terminated the taxes in a specified number of years.

A sunset clause makes city officials accountable on how tax money is spent, Knudtson said.

But other council members said the city has continuing operating needs that can't be met with a short-term tax.

"We need a steady revenue stream for public safety," councilman Charlie Herbst said.

Councilman Matt Hopkins said state law already limits how fire sales tax money can be spent.

The tax could only be used for fire department operations. But it would free up general revenue that then could be used to help fund the police department, city officials said.

Leslie said a proposed quarter-cent sales tax would need to run for at least 10 years if the city is to address its operating needs in the police and fire departments. Leslie said the tax would allow the city to issue bonds to fund building and equipment improvements.

Council members also want money to go to boost salaries in the police and fire departments to address recruitment problems.

Knudtson said voters don't want a confusing package of tax proposals on the election ballot.

A fire tax offers the best chance for passage, he said, because "it's easy to understand."

Voters last April rejected a fire tax along with other funding measures. But councilwoman Evelyn Boardman said the council shouldn't be afraid to go back to the voters with a tax proposal.

"The needs have not gone away," she said.

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