by Ivan Foley
Citing surveys that they say show support for the issue, the Platte County Commission on Thursday unanimously voted to ask for renewal of a countywide sales tax for parks at the existing rate of one half cent.
The three commissioners--all Republicans--listened to a recommendation from Platte County Parks Director Brian Nowotny before each gave their reasoning for supporting the idea of asking for the half cent tax renewal in a special election to be held in August.
The half cent park sales tax was originally passed in 2000 with a sunset after 10 years. The new proposal would go into effect at the start of 2011, if passed, and would also carry a ten year sunset.
“Judge us for what we did for parks and for the county and that’s why there is a sunset,” Betty Knight, presiding commissioner said.
Knight pointed out that before the tax was passed the county had only one neighborhood park and a golf course “that other folks had put in place.”
Since the time of the sales tax passage, the department has acquired 880 acres of new ground for parks and currently owns 1,153 acres. Twenty five percent of that is developed as parks with ball fields and trails. The other 800 acres does not yet have a park plan, Nowotny said. The county has also opened two community centers operated by the YMCA, one in Platte City and the other in Parkville.
Nowotny has said a goal if the tax is renewed will be to double the miles of trails in the county from 15 to 30.
The department provides a parks outreach grant program to smaller entities in the county of $200,000 annually. That amount could be raised to $250,000 annually if the tax is renewed, Nowotny said. Some stormwater grants have also been handed out to entities, as a portion of the tax is used for stormwater control.
Nowotny said extensive research and planning had gone into his recommendation to renew the tax at its current rate. There were two parks master plan meetings and eight focus group meetings held over the past couple of years.
County officials have cited three surveys that show support. A random sample survey in 2007 generated about 400 responses and showed 60% in favor of renewing “the current parks sales tax.”
In August of 2008, Nowotny said a random sample survey sent to 2,000 residences generated another 400 responses, with 72% supporting either a half cent or 3/8 cent tax for parks. In April of this year, another survey sent to 2,000 was returned by roughly 400, with a question specific to the half cent tax and positive response was 76%.
“I’m still amazed and suprised that the number just keeps going up,” said Jim Plunkett, second district commissioner.
Later, prior to making his vote, Plunkett said: “I’m a mouthpiece for people who live in my district and they are telling me to vote for this.”
Kathy Dusenbery, first district commissioner and former mayor of Parkville, said she has been on the flip side of those outreach grants and said Parkville has been able to offer amenitites to its parks thanks to receiving outreach grants from the county.
“It has been very beneficial,” she said.
Dusenbery then claimed that compared to “what’s going on in other counties, we invest very little compared to other regional communities.”
Nowotny said the first 10 years of the tax will have netted $60 million. If renewed, Nowotny estimates the next ten years of the tax would net another $76 million.
At the request of The Landmark, county auditor Siobhann Williams ran her own set of projections. Williams’ figures show that if renewed, the park tax would generate about $91 million over that second ten year period. Williams said her projections were done using zero growth for 2009 (even though park sales tax collections are up 4.5% thus far this year) and then 4% growth per year thereafter.
Subtracting about 10 percent of the gross proceeds to go to TIF projects, that would leave a net of $82 million for parks in that second 10 years.
If so, that would give the county $142 million to put toward parks in the span of a 20-year period.
Nowotny said building trails can be an expensive venture. He said the average cost of trail built in Platte County is on average $250,000 per mile.
Nowotny said he did look at recommending a 3/8 cent tax this time around but it “didn’t match up as well with the needs and desires” of residents who had provided input.
“Seventy seven percent of the people surveyed said they have a need for additional trails in Platte County, indoor recreation space, nature trails and nature areas,” he said.
He said earlier discussions proposing a 20-year tax prior to sunset--an idea that other sources told The Landmark was pushed by Dusenbery--did not fare nearly as well in surveys of potential voters.
“There was a noticeable decline for extending the tax for 20 years,” Nowotny said.
Some of the goals for the parks department if the tax is renewed, according to Nowotny, would include:
•New and diverse trail experiences like horse trails, backpacking trails, paddle trails and mountain bike paths;
•Enhance and expand the community centers.
•Create new recreational facilities for youth such as sports fields and interactive playgrounds.
•Improve Shiloh Springs Golf Club.
The half cent sales tax proposal will be the only thing on a special election ballot on Aug. 4. It requires simple majority for passage.