Cape faces crucial spending, revenue ideas

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

It's been almost a year since officials in Cape Girardeau began the long and difficult process of figuring out how best to meet city needs. The city has outspent revenue for the last three years. A committee of city employees looked long and hard at construction projects, equipment needs and pay increases. In the end, the committee recommended a long list of expenditures to be financed with a three-quarter-cent increase in the sales tax.

A citizen task force appointed by the mayor reviewed the employee committee's recommendations. It suggested that certain major spending items -- equipment purchases, stormwater improvements, police station addition, new fire station -- should have the highest priority. In addition, the task force pushed for an aquatic center estimated to cost $6.5 million. And the task force recommended a one-quarter-cent increase in sales tax along with a use tax, extension of a 10-cent property tax and an increase in stormwater fees.

Now the city council must decide which direction to go. It's a complicated decision, and whatever plan the council chooses to put before voters at a future election is bound to have an impact on the quality of city services for years to come.

There are two crucial issues before the council:

Should the city's priority projects include an aquatic center?

Should voters be asked to approve one large sales-tax increase or four smaller tax and fee proposals?

The aquatic center isn't a new idea. It's been on the minds of the city's parks and recreation board and parents of youngsters who are frequent users of the city pool at Capaha Park. That aging pool is costly to operate because of continuing maintenance problems. Many city officials believe it's time to replace the pool.

If that's the case, then the issue is how best to replace the old pool. Any replacement project would be costly, and supporters of the aquatic center say putting that money into an aquatic center would be prudent and make the best use of taxpayers' dollars.

Aquatic centers are quite the rage these days. St. Louis has built several of the facilities in recent years. Farmington, Mo., has a popular aquatic center that draws quite a number of visitors from the Cape Girardeau area. Private developers are building an aquatic center at Poplar Bluff, Mo.

Mayor Jay Knudtson, who has visited the St. Louis aquatic centers, is impressed by what he saw. As a former park board chairman, the mayor has more than a passing interest in what happens to replace Capaha Pool. One thing he learned in St. Louis is that the aquatic centers generate enough revenue to pay their operating costs. That would be a key consideration in Cape Girardeau, where the city is already struggling to make ends meet.

In addition, many city officials believe there is strong support in the city for an aquatic center -- enough support that having it on a tax-question ballot issue might help approve whatever financing plan the council comes up with.

Whether to propose one tax issue or four financing options is a tough call as well.

A three-quarter-cent sales-tax increase would make Cape Girardeau's sales tax one of the highest in the area. There is concern among retailers that such an increase could be detrimental to future sales.

At the same time, the council recognizes the difficulty in getting voters to approve four separate ballot issues to accomplish the same financing goals.

One question about a four-issue package -- sales tax, use tax, property-tax extension, stormwater fees -- is this: What happens if some of the package passes but not all? Mayor Knudtson's take is that each of the four items would be directly tied to specific spending plans on a priority list, much like the priority list the city has successfully used for several years to make street improvements under the Transportation Trust Fund. If one of the revenue proposals failed, those items would be put on hold.

Some voters wonder if the city could ask for less new revenue if the aquatic center were left off the spending list. Most city officials say the funding amount likely would be the same, but the $6.5 million earmarked for the aquatic center would be spent on other items on the city's wish list of spending needs.

One thing that could happen to make council members feel more confident about adding the aquatic center at this time to spending priorities would be a groundswell of citizen support. City officials are confident the support is out there. Those folks need to be making their presence known at council meetings and through letters of support, both to council members and through letters to the editor.

It has been interesting to see how the city has processed its needs and tried to balance them with revenue-producing options. The next step is crucial: picking a plan and asking for voters to approve it.

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