Public safety tax could be on November ballot

Commissioners could make a decision as early as this month about placing a dedicated law enforcement and public safety sales tax on the November election ballot.

With the deadline for placing issues on the Tuesday, Nov. 6 general election ballot looming at the end of August, commissioners announced this week they are considering placing the new tax on the ballot sooner rather than later. A decision on the amount of this new sales tax is pending, but the cap on such sales taxes is statutorily set at one-half cent.

Last week, the commissioners issued a press release stating they would be pursuing a long-anticipated public safety sales tax. Commissioners’ comments at the Monday, Aug. 6 administrative session seemed to speed up the perceived time line on this potential tax, with commissioners saying they could make a decision to place a tax on the November ballot as soon as the next administrative session, Monday, Aug. 20.

Commissioners said they have spent the last several months requesting 10-year budget plans from departments and officeholders. Using those, the commissioners are creating a plan to fund law enforcement needs, expand the county detention center and relocate the prosecutor’s office to a larger space.

“This is a prime example of what we’re trying to do to put law enforcement first,” presiding commissioner Ron Schieber said earlier in the meeting, regarding the Cyber Crimes Task Force, which is headquartered in Platte County and serves a 27-county area.

The new law enforcement plan would help create funding — and physical space — for additional expanded programs such as school resource officers and another division of the Platte County Circuit Court.

Platte County mayors also attended the meeting, voicing their support and seeking clarification on the proposal. Parkville mayor Nan Johnston, Platte Woods mayor John Smedley and Weston mayor Cliff Harvey were all in attendance, and briefly spoke.

The City of Parkville has been working on its own long-term planning to help cover any reductions in the county parks tax. Johnston praised the commission’s work on public safety planning, but also had some concerns.

“Parks are also very important to Parkville residents and I understand that probably in some part of the county that is not a major priority,” Johnston said. “We would like to work with the county on how we can support our parks system, perhaps with the cities running our local parks at the municipal level, but we have to have a funding source. If that’s not going to be the county, we might be discussing a plan of how to fund that at the municipal level.”

Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd and sheriff Mark Owen also spoke at the meeting.

“These people are coming up here,” Owen said, of rising crime statistics in Platte County — as well as across other suburban communities nationwide. “It’s our job to keep them out.”

Zahnd — who at 15 years in office is the longest-serving prosecutor in the Kansas City metro area — said the nature of crimes handled by his office has changed drastically over the last decade. With violent crime on the rise in the county, he said his office needs more resources to keep up with its caseload.

The current commission has long discussed reducing the county’s half-cent parks, recreation and stormwater sales tax. That tax expires in 2020 and would go before voters for renewal in 2019. While commissioners say they have not settled on an amount for the parks tax, it likely would come up for renewal at one-quarter cent.

However, commissioners said they would align all new, restructured taxes to dedicate sales and use taxes to the designated accounts. Currently, all use tax revenues are placed in the county’s general fund.

Ann Dwyer Sanders, chair of the Platte County Parks Board, said the reduction of the park tax has been an expected move, and the department has been working to scale back plans and planning for future maintenance of existing facilities.

David Park, a Democrat running for presiding commissioner against Schieber in the November general election, also spoke. He questioned the timing of the tax issue, the future of the parks tax and the transparency of the process so far.

He noted the parks tax was only approved after needs assessments had been done, a public input process held and several community forums were hosted. He questioned why a similar planning process was not being utilized for this potential tax and what research and analysis had been completed prior to this announcement.

Commissioners said the public is invited to regular commission planning sessions and the Coffee With Commissioners events hosted on most Fridays at various restaurants around the county. Schieber said the county had utilized the 10-year budget plans and existing studies, such as those used by the 2014 jail committee.

Also during the discussions, commissioners said all county taxes would be under review, including the property tax levy, the general county sales tax and the roads sales tax. The new law enforcement and public safety tax would have a sunset date, much like the parks and roads taxes, most likely of 10 years.