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Sales tax could be on ballot as early as fall to fund Wichita projects

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 1, 2014, at 9:16 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 4, 2014, at 6:50 a.m.

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The debate continues at City Hall: Should voters consider a sales tax increase to pay for a multitude of quality-of-life projects that the city can’t afford without a property tax increase?

Confronted with a daunting list of projects carrying a tab that could exceed $1 billion, council members began internal discussions last year about packaging the projects in a multi-year sales tax initiative similar to Oklahoma City’s MAPS, an acronym for Metropolitan Area Projects. A public vote could come in the fall or later.

The city’s ACT ICT community meetings, in which 2,009 people weighed in on their priorities for Wichita’s future, showed support for a sales tax, with 58 percent of participants in favor.

It’s a question, Mayor Carl Brewer said, of how many improvements Wichitans want to make, and how they might be financed.

“When you keep putting things off for years and years, eventually they’re going to catch up with you,” Brewer said. “The big-ticket items are the ones we have a tendency to put off for five, 10, 15 years. Eventually you have to take care of them.”

About a year ago, council members visited Oklahoma City to examine how a conservative, economically struggling city passed the first of two successful long-term sales tax initiatives. Voters approved a temporary 1-cent sales tax in 1994 and extended it for six months before it ended in 1999. The tax collected more than $309 million, with that money earning another $54 million in interest.

There’s no consensus yet about the size of a sales tax, what it should build, how much it should raise or how long it should last before expiring. Council members have opposed the idea of a property tax increase.

The prospective wish list is still the subject of substantial debate at City Hall. But here are some of the key projects under consideration:

•  Economic development: A financial war chest is needed to compete with cities and states that have paid as much as $200,000 per job in incentives to land jobs, chamber and city officials say.

•  Water supply: A three-year drought led council members to begin searching for a new city water supply to supplement the Equus Beds and Cheney Reservoir long term.

•  Conventions and arts: Efforts are under way to determine how Wichita’s Century II convention space would need to change or be replaced to attract more business. Needs of the city’s performing arts organizations also are being considered.

•  Water and sewer lines: Wichita’s water and sewer systems need $2.1 billion in repair and replacement work, a bill that cannot be funded within the city budget without significant property tax increases, city officials say.

•  Streets: Streets need more money for maintenance, which has lagged because of tight budgets.

•  Downtown library: Plans to build a $29 million library downtown were shelved last year, with council members citing concerns that the project would increase the city’s general obligation bond debt too much.

•  Bus system: Transit backers seek a $25 million enhanced transit system, with expanded routes and hours. The current limited system cannot be sustained without a permanent source of funding, they say.

•  Ballpark: Lawrence-Dumont Stadium needs to be repaired or replaced, say supporters of keeping the National Baseball Congress World Series and potentially returning to affiliated minor league baseball.

The priority is job creation, some council members said.

Council members are clear: No sales tax initiative will be placed on a ballot by the council until a list of projects and costs, the amount of tax and its length are defined. Any sales tax vote would be reserved for a general election – in fall 2014 at the earliest.

“I think we’re all trying to keep an open mind, and ultimately it’s the voters’ decision,” council member James Clendenin said.

“We have significant challenges ahead, and with the state and the federal government demanding more financial participation from cities, we have to decide what’s a priority and how we’re going to fund it.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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