Support for early ballot on sales tax not strong

Thursday, May 16, 2002

CAPE REVENUE

By Bob Miller ~ Southeast Missourian

The Cape Girardeau City Council is leaning toward putting a 3/4 cent sales tax on the ballot.

Just not on the August ballot.

The council held a round-table study session Wednesday night with the city's revenue team, a group composed of city employees from all departments. The revenue team presented the council with a tax-increase recommendation at the last council meeting. The revenue team gave the council four options, recommending the first option: a half-cent stormwater/park tax and a quarter-cent fire tax.

The council will decide at Monday's 7 p.m. meeting whether to put the issue on the August ballot, but there was lengthy discussion in opposition of putting the issue to voters that soon.

Representatives from the revenue team said they wanted to put the issue to a vote in August so it would not run on the same November ballot as a proposed state sales tax increase. They also said they believed an August election would draw more educated voters.

Though Tim Gramling, a spokesman for the revenue team, was confident that the public could be aware of the issues and convinced of the needs in three months, the council members came to an unofficial agreement that they want to have more time to educate themselves and residents.

"Under no circumstances will I vote for August," said councilman Matthew Hopkins after the meeting.

Hopkins said he believes that the city is running efficiently and more revenue is needed, but he wants to compare, in depth, the city's budget and circumstances with other cities of similar size and make sure no fiscal or organizational improvements can be made.

Meeting the needs now

Most of the council members agreed that the first option, the 3/4-cent sales tax increase, was the best option because it would take care of the city's needs up front and the city would not have to ask for another small tax increase in the next few years.

Councilwoman Marcia Ritter was still unsure if she would support Option 1 and councilman Charlie Ritter was wavering between Option 1 and Option 4, which is a phased approach, much like the existing Transportation Trust Fund.

The taxes suggested under Option 1 would generate $6 million a year. Though the taxes would specifically go toward the stormwater, parks and fire departments, it would free up general funds that are already going to those areas. The city's most critical needs come in the area of operating expenditures -- personnel, building maintenance and equipment.

Over the last three years, the city has had to dip into non-emergency reserves that were generated during the boom years of the mid-90s. Due partly to a sluggish economy, the city's sales tax has not increased at the same rate of inflation during the last three years, accounting for the shortfall.

'We're hurtin''

Many of the revenue team members spoke passionately Wednesday night about needs that have not been met in several years because funds have not been available.

Firefighter Charlie Brawley was especially forthright. He talked about how the fire department has one less fire truck now than when he started about 20 years ago despite a dramatic increase in calls.

"Any time you have a fire truck with no water, it ought to be a concern to every citizen in Cape Girardeau," he said. He later added that he wouldn't let a child sit in the passenger seat of a fire truck recently because he was too embarrassed about the large hole in the seat.

"We're hurtin'," he said. "And if we weren't hurtin', this team wouldn't have been put together."

bmiller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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