We urge Gardner voters to cast a “no” vote in a city sales tax initiative. By now, most registered voters should have received their ballots in the mail. To be counted, the ballots must be returned to the Johnson County Election Office no later than noon on Sept. 15.
Via the ballot, city officials are asking Gardner residents to add a half-cent sales tax. If approved, the tax will be used for road and trail maintenance, according to city council members.
However, the question wording is just vague enough that the additional funding can be used for any “city infrastructure.” It will expire in 10 years, and if voters buy that line, we’ve got lovely ocean-front property available for sale right here in Gardner.
No tax ever dies. They’re just resurrected. This is one of several reasons we oppose this sales tax initiative. It’s a sales tax increase, though officials are proclaiming that it simply maintains the existing sales tax rate. That’s true, if you conveniently forget the fact that a current half-cent sales tax expires on Dec. 31, 2015.
That half-cent sales tax was originally meant to cover all of the debt on the Gardner Aquatic Center and Celebration Park. However, when officials were wrong about just how much money the sales tax would provide, the city had to use general funds to assist in paying off the pool and the park.
It’s difficult for us to recommend giving more money to an organization that has a history of questionable stewardship with existing funds. Yes, we understand that this is a different council than the one that drafted and approved the last half-cent sales tax, but the new council should have to prove its fiscal stewardship before voters give them a new revenue windfall. They haven’t done so at this point, and this sales tax question is, well, questionable government.
The sales tax, if approved, will expire (or they will need another ballot initiative) in 10 years. You know what won’t expire in 10 years? Street maintenance needs. Using a sales tax with a sunset for a need that never expires is bad government policy. When the tax expires, street maintenance will still be necessary.
And let’s talk a minute about the difference between needs and wants: If city finances are in such shape that we need a sales tax initiative to fund ongoing, city needs, then why is the question worded in such a way that the money can also be used to fund city wants? Jogging trails and bike paths are wants – not needs. That leads us to believe our street maintenance needs aren’t as great as is being proclaimed.
An example from the recent past: When citizens first requested a quiet zone near the Gardner Cemetery, city staff and council said it would cost millions. Eventually, a new council approved a quiet zone at the at-grade rail crossing on Poplar Street. The actual cost was less than $300,000.
A citizen committee will oversee projects if the sales tax is approved. Traditionally, these kinds of appointed committees are used simply to get citizen buy-in for what may be unpopular projects. See the vast number of self-proclaimed conservatives who are now actively campaigning for a tax increase, and not just any tax increase. Sales taxes are the most regressive of taxes, because poor residents will bear a greater financial burden due to the tax. Poorer residents are less likely to be able to afford to drive to find lower tax rates, and a greater portion of their income will go to a new sales tax.
We urge voters to cast a ballot against the sales tax. We can’t be assured that it will be spent on needs and not wants. It’s a tax increase, and using a so-called expiring tax to fund ongoing maintenance is bad policy.