Friday, February 6, 2009

The cake never tasted so BITTER

Voters reject tax hike

Springfield city manager says "worst-case" plan will have to proceed.

Wes Johnson • News-Leader • February 4, 2009

Stung by tough economic times and mistrust of city leaders, Springfield voters narrowly rejected a one-cent sales tax to bolster the financially ailing police-fire pension fund Tuesday.

The pension sales tax -- which could have pumped an estimated $40 million a year into the fund for up to five years -- failed by fewer than 900 votes, according to final but unofficial results by the Greene County Clerk's office.

Had it passed, the tax would have gone into effect July 1 and would cost an extra dollar on a $100 purchase in Springfield.

At a gathering Tuesday night at the police and fire station on east Battlefield Road, City Manager Greg Burris said he would ask voters to reconsider the sales tax question, possibly in June or August.

And he said his "worst-case" budget plan -- which called for $5.7 million in cuts if the sales tax issue failed --will need to move ahead, even after a new council is elected in April.

"I won't change my budget recommendations based on who gets elected," Burris said. "The pension problem hasn't gone away."

Today, Burris plans to meet with his staff to figure out why voters rejected the sales tax and consider how the proposal might be "tweaked" ahead of another vote.

He said the pension fund's shortfall -- $197 million in December -- will continue to get worse because of the tax vote's failure, a sentiment echoed by Councilman Doug Burlison.

"My initial thought is that the price tag to fix this problem has just gone up, and gone up at an incredible rate," a visibly upset Burlison said. "I think, with all the problems the federal government is dealing with, that folks have equated this as being a local bailout. That's not a fair representation of the problem at all."

Mayor Tom Carlson said he thought getting a sales tax passed during the current economic recession "was going to be a challenge."

"The fact the vote came this close in this uncertain time is encouraging," he said.

Councilman Ralph Manley's voice cracked, and he wiped away a few tears, after the final results rolled in on a computer screen at the police-fire station on east Battlefield.

"I am very, very disappointed that only 17 percent of the people voted on this issue," Manley said. "In my own heart -- and I'm a successful businessman -- I knew this sales tax was the best way to get this done, and get it done quick."

City voter Charles Allen backed the sales tax because he wanted to show support for police officers and fire fighters.

"I'm retired myself," Allen said. "I know how much that pension would mean to them. These people deserve it. Nobody realizes the dangers they face. When the action starts, those people are out there putting their lives on the line for you."

He hoped voters would approve the tax, but indicated he wanted to see results with the new sales tax money.

"It's a shame we got in this situation," he said. "I hope they manage this thing right and give them what they deserve -- and give us what we deserve."

But Jay Rippee said the cost of a new sales tax was too much of a burden.

"With the economy's condition now, we shouldn't have a tax increase," Rippee said.

Asked if he felt the city successfully conveyed the need for the increase, Rippee said '"no."

"I don't think they gave us the reason for why it (the shortfall) happened in the first place," he said. "That was their fault and then we want to make it up now ..."

Judy Wilson said the city didn't do enough research before asking voters for a sales tax hike, and that earned a "no" vote from her.

She also felt the city resorted to "scare tactics" to sway voters by outlining budget cuts that could happen if the tax fails.

"I didn't like the scare tactics at all," she said. "A lot of older people my age are scared to death they're not going to have police protection if this fails. I don't think that's going to happen."

Fairelyn Bayless said she felt "really sorry for those guys" because of the losses in their pension fund.

"But I'm not going to vote for it unless I'm convinced all the money would go to the pension fund," she said. "I'm not sure it will."

Steven Reed, who formed an opposition group to the sales tax, said he thought the vote showed that "the city needs to start listening to its citizens."

A lot was riding on the outcome of Tuesday's vote, including the health of next year's city budget.

Burris has already presented a 17-point budget plan that would make deep cuts in some departments, extend a hiring freeze for 30 positions and possibly lay off some city employees.

It also eliminates all city financial support of nonprofit groups, and makes significant cuts in funding for the parks, public works and health departments.

How soon could the city legally put another sales tax issue on the ballot?

A Missouri Department of Revenue spokesman said June 2 would be the city's next opportunity to put the same sales tax proposal before Springfield voters.

However, Greene County Clerk Richard Struckhoff said the city potentially could seek a court order to get the question on the April 7 general election ballot.

Struckhoff said Jan. 27 was the filing deadline for the April 7 election. Only a court order could overrule that deadline, he said.

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