Cape fire tax passes overwhelmingly

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Cape Girardeau voters overwhelmingly approved a quarter-cent fire sales tax Tuesday, thrilling a cheering crowd of about 50 city officials, civic leaders, firefighters and police officers and their families who gathered at Drury Lodge to celebrate the victory.

Mayor Jay Knudston said he was surprised by the margin of victory. The measure passed with nearly 81 percent support. Voters approved the sales tax by a vote of 4,130 to 991. It passed in all 14 city voting precincts, and absentee ballots overwhelmingly favored the measure.

"This is unbelievable," Knudtson told the crowd. "I'm in awe. I in no way expected that kind of overwhelming support."

Most voters, however, didn't bother to vote. Only 21.8 percent of the city's registered voters went to the polls in the special election, Cape Girardeau County Clerk Rodney Miller said.

Still, the mayor said the voters have sounded a clear message. "They said, 'We trust you, city hall,'" he told tax supporters.

Knudtson said it is hard to pass any tax, much less by such a wide margin. He credited a campaign committee of city residents, city staff and the efforts of police officers and firefighters and their families in getting the message to voters that the tax was needed.

"I think the message and need was very clear," said Harry Rediger, who chaired the campaign committee. He said the fact that the tax money will go into a trust fund to be used only for public safety needs may have helped win over voters.

City manager Doug Leslie said it was "gratifying" to see such voter support.

The tax will generate about $2 million annually for the city over the next 10 years to fund pay raises for police and firefighters, hire three more firefighters, buy police cars, fire trucks and other public safety equipment, construct a new fire station to replace an aging station, renovate the police station and the main fire station and replace roofs on two other fire stations.

Half the tax -- the part earmarked for capital improvements -- will expire at the end of 10 years. The other half is a permanent tax.

"This is a vote for the future," said police chief Steve Strong. "We've been trying to run a professional police department on security guard salaries, and we can't do that."

Fire chief Richard Ennis said passage of the tax means more than money for his department. "It's a vote of confidence to our firefighters," he said.

At the Arena Building Tuesday afternoon, an informal check of voters found most supported the tax.

Emily Bashore said she was sold on the fire tax as a way to raise salaries for police officers. She also said she was convinced the city needed more tax money to upgrade fire department equipment.

Forrest Kidd said the tax should boost pay for police and firefighters.

"These guys put their lives on the line for us," he said.

"I think it is justifiable for what they want," said Shirley Myracle, who believes city officials would spend the tax money on police and fire department needs as promised.

"I trust them," she said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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