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Will voters get a chance
to realign park tax?
Commission discusses the possibility

by Stephanie Eaton
Landmark reporter

Platte County commissioners in the days after last week’s primary election have held two meetings to discuss the results of the Jail Advisory Committee's recommendations for how to fund potential facility expansion for the jail and administrative offices.

While one commissioner worried that bringing the topic of funding to voters would bring a “war” between residents on opposite sides of the issue, another commissioner said the topic of funding should be brought to the voters in November.

Last Wednesday--the day after Ron Schieber had easily won a Republican primary race for presiding commissioner on the platform of no new taxes and realigning the park tax--and again on Monday, Platte County commissioners gathered to discuss the results jail advisory committee report that was presented during the Aug. 4 county commission meeting.

Jail advisory committee member Dagmar Wood had presented the commission with a summary of what the committee decided concerning the future of the Platte County Jail. Wood said that the committee unanimously agreed that the county did not have an immediate need to expand the existing facility at the current time.

However, Wood also said the committee also agreed unanimously that the prosecutor offices were in need of expansion and that when county officials decided to expand the current jail facility and administrative offices that no new debt should be incurred. Any expansion of the jail should be done in the basement of the current jail, known as the “futures” area.

One area of discussion that the jail committee could not agree upon was how to finance the expansion of the administrative offices and jail facility. However, Wood told commissioners the majority of the committee believed financing of the construction for the jail's basement and the remodeling of the administrative offices should be through the reallocation of the existing half cent parks sales tax. The committee recommends giving voters the option of redirecting one eighth cent to law enforcement.

The realignment of the tax could also pay for the county’s $10 million emergency radio debt, an expense for which no prior county commission has established a dedicated funding stream.

Two ballot measures in the same election would address the realignment.

“The ballot measures would ask voters to first approve a 25 percent reduction of the current parks tax,” the report from the Jail Advisory Committee said. “The second related ballot question would ask voters to approve that same 25 percent amount be dedicated for law enforcement purposes, with restriction on its use and with a sunset date.”

According to the Jail Advisory committee, the parks tax is estimated to have generated over $140 million by the time it sunsets in 2020.

The reallocation of $12 million for Platte County law enforcement represents 8.8 percent of the estimated parks tax total revenue.

If the commissioners wished to have residents vote on the matter in November, there is an Aug. 26 deadline for getting the questions placed on the November general election ballot.

It was the topic of the reallocation of funds that seem to bring the commissioners back to the table for further discussion on Aug. 6.

While Presiding Commissioner Jason Brown appeared to want voters to decide whether or not they wish to reallocate the parks sales tax, Commissioners Duane Soper and Beverlee Roper did not appear to be quite as ready.

Soper started the discussion by saying that he wanted to make sure he studied the matter further before deciding on whether or not he wanted to take the topic of reallocation of funds to the voters. He said he also felt that members of the parks and recreation department should have the opportunity to look at the jail advisory committee proposal.

“My opinion is I am not going to rush through something,” Soper said. “I think that is wrong. I think the parks board should have the opportunity to do a study to determine what they promised their voters and what they will have to eliminate from their voters.”

However, Brown said he did not feel like the commissioners were rushing into the matter if they brought the topic to the voters in November.

“I do not think that we are rushing,” Brown said. “I do not think that we are rushing on this at all. I think since we have had some conversation about this for months, if not going on two years now. We have talked about this before. We continue to have more conversations about this. I disagree we are rushing anything.”

Soper also said he had a hard time taking the issues of parks back to the voters.

“I really have a problem with having an election, people voting, approving and then for us to put it back on to rescind.”

Brown said he did not feel like the voters were informed by a previous county commission about the need for increase jail capacity and the unfunded radios when they voted to renew the parks tax in 2009. He said county officials did not make those facts known to the public. He said law enforcement funding issues are extremely important.

“I believe that getting the radios funded without a tax increase is real important,” Brown said. “It is as important as anything else facing this county. We have a limited amount of time. This is what we are elected to do; to sit here and operate under pressure and to do our jobs and to do so for the entire good of the county, not one faction, but the entire good of the whole county. And at the end of the day, this is what I took away from what the group presented to us in that meeting.”

Brown said it should not be the decision of the commission on how to pay for the jail and radios, but it should be the public.

“This is not the three of us saying you get or you don't get. What this is, is us giving voters all the information available which I wholeheartedly believe was not done when the parks tax was renewed back in 2009. The information about the needs for a jail and the unfunded radios and that mandate was known within the commission. It was a different commission than any three of us served on. They knew about it. People in this building knew. The voters did not know about it. That information was withheld from voters and the issue (renewing the park tax at half cent instead of directing a portion to law enforcement) went to the ballot.”

Brown said he was not in favor of raising taxes to finance the space issues of the administrative buildings or to pay for the radios. He said when viewing election results, voters have stated what they wanted.

“I looked at information last night. I was up at the board of elections. I looked at issues that failed and issues that passed. Taxes did not do well. A tax increase is something people in this county do not want. It has been clear for several elections now,” Brown said.

Platte County resident John Elliott concurred with Brown and said the public did not know about the law enforcement space issues and financing the radio in 2009.

“While true, there was an election and it did pass. This was August in 2009. Does anyone in this room remember ever having an August odd year election before or a November odd year election before? 4,940 showed up to vote in that election in August of 2009. It was a special election. 4,940 people turned out to vote. 2,667 in this county said yes, renew it. I guarantee you that not 10 percent of that 4,940 people knew anything about that federal radio mandate that has been here in this building and on this floor since Bill Clinton was president.”

Platte County Sheriff Mark Owen said his department is struggling because of lack of funding.

“Law enforcement, we all agree is one of the key functions,” Owen said. “Eric Zahnd (Platte County prosecutor) and I have numerous discussions, and I am not trying to drag him in, but we're going on a downhill spiral the way it is going right now. The case load--you need a prosecutor. You have got people here who have been paid one raise in seven years. I have got three resignations lying on my desk again yesterday morning. They are leaving for salary. I cannot find people to hire.”

Owen said the county can have parks, but his department may not be able to patrol them.

“Whether you have parks or not if you put 150 miles of walking trails in I have got to patrol them. That costs money and we do not have staff.”

Parkville resident Gordon Cook questioned the priorities of those on the commission.

“We are very willing to go into debt for toys and things that are nice to have, but here I am sitting with a sheriff that has to have a radio system and I have a prosecutor who cannot put things through the system fast enough and work in what I call less than acceptable office conditions,” Cook said. “I am supposed to do that so that we can have a nice park and have a nice swimming pool. I think the priorities are wrong in the county. If the priorities are parks and swimming pools and the prosecutor gets lousy office space and the sheriff cannot pay for radios then I think we really need to evaluate what we are doing up here.”

Commissioner Beverlee Roper said she was worried about fighting among the citizens if commissioners decided to allow the funding topic to be brought to voters in November.

“There are two opposing forces here,” Roper said. “We do not want three months of war in our county, I hope.”

Roper said maybe the sheriff, prosecutor and parks officials could come up with some sort of “deal.”

“We don't know yet what can happen here, but there may be a deal,” Roper said. “You do not know until people have a chance to run numbers.”

Jail advisory committee member Jeff Watson said he did not think the vote would divide the community but instead bring them together.

“I disagree on that,” Watson said. “I do not think there are two opposing forces here. I think what we have is a community that needs to come together and decide what is important to them.”

Platte County resident Theresa Emerson concurred with Watson and said she did not feel like the vote would divide the community.

“If the voters are well informed and given all the information of the needs of law enforcement then I think they would look at that and say, 'Absolutely, it would be fine to give a percentage to law enforcement to make the needs of the county,” Emerson said. “I believe that the people would speak in that way. I do not think it is correct to do it in any other way than allowing everyone, not just this room full of people, but the entire county to vote and that is what the November ballot would allow.”

The meeting ended with the commissioners saying they would like to talk to parks officials before making a decision. Brian Nowotny, parks director, was out of town when the jail committee made its recommendation.

However, commissioners did not waste any time talking to Nowotny. On Monday, the day Nowotny returned from vacation, all three commissioners met with him to discuss how a reduction in the parks tax would impact Platte County's Parks and Recreation Department.

Commissioners asked Nowotny about what projects in the master plan might not be able to be completed if the reduction was approved. Commissioners scheduled a meeting for Aug. 14 to discuss the matter with Nowotny further.

However, Roper continued to express her concern about using the parks tax to help law enforcement. Roper said she had read the Platte County Parks and Recreation Department's Master Plan and she was concerned about how the plan would be impacted.

“I have read this (the master plan) this weekend and an awful lot of work went into this,” Roper said. “I mean I do not know how many hours with the meetings and the way this thing was drafted.”

Roper encouraged the commissioners and Nowotny to proceed with caution.

“I am saying we have to be very careful. It was completed in May 2009. If you take a look at this you will see how much effort went into this and the underlying effort that is reflected in this document is hour upon hour upon hour. I did find some very interesting things in this. It is very well done.”
Roper encouraged the commissioners not to ignore the needs of the residents.

“If we were to make a decision on this we do need to show leadership but we cannot ignore the people of Platte County.”