Residents in St. Joseph should pay close attention to the regional half-cent sales-tax question on the ballot this Nov. 4.
The time to start paying attention is now. Voters will be asked to either approve or to reject an extension of the half-cent tax from Jan. 1, 2019 through 2038.
Since 2006, when voters approved the tax, the City of St. Joseph has received about $2.1 million in revenue. By the time the current tax expires at the end of 2018, the city will collect another million in revenue, according to St. Joseph City Administrator Judy Weyrens.
So far, the money has been used for city projects that have regional significance, more or less: trail extensions, sidewalk construction, Centennial Park playground equipment, a park-and-trails development plan, installation of a heating system in the Lake Wobegon trailhead building and money to purchase land just north of the city-hall/police department building.
So far, so good. Who can argue with such good projects? The trouble erupted, however, when all kinds of misunderstandings and miscommunications developed between the city council and residents about a proposed construction of a new city hall/police department/public-meeting-room building. During several public meetings, many residents – some of them angry – emphasized they do not want money (sales-tax revenue or other forms) spent on a community room. A community center, fine, but not a community room or rooms. The community-room concept would qualify a new city-hall building as a “regional” project since anybody, including out-of-towners, could rent the gathering room. By state law, any regional half-cent sales-tax money must be spent on projects that have some “regional significance.”
The council, after listening to constituents, decided to nix the idea of a new building and go back to the drawing board.
The reason everyone in the city must start paying attention to these sales-tax issues is because they are certain to happen again, especially if St. Joseph voters approve a 20-year extension of the tax.
What must happen is the council and residents must hold surveys and public meetings to determine how the money should be spent. Most importantly, all input must be carefully documented and recorded in detail. Any consensus must also be impeccably recorded as specifically as possible. Vague terms such as “community meeting place” must be avoided. After all, there is a big difference between a “community room” and “community center.”
By insisting on focusing on specifics and recording them in detail in the public record, such misunderstandings and miscommunications can, hopefully, be avoided in the future.
And that won’t happen unless all involved pay close attention and insist upon good, specific, detailed communications.