The Ellis County Commission is determined to get its way this time. A special election has been set for May 14, at which time voters will decide whether to approve a 0.5 percent sales tax to pay for all the planned renovations and new construction projects.
If voters say yes, the tax would be in effect for five years or until the jail and courthouse are renovated and a new EMS/rural fire facility is built -- whichever comes sooner.
If voters say no, the common understanding was that either the projects would be put on hold or commissioners would have to go back to the drawing board.
That understanding, however, is not the way commissioners apparently see the situation.
A letter to the editor in last Sunday's Hays Daily News from the three Ellis County commissioners appeared to suggest the planned renovations and new construction projects will happen regardless of how people vote. The letter read, in part: "Now the question is, how do you want to pay for them? Do you want a sales tax or do you want to pay for it with an increase of your property taxes? It is up to you."
There are good arguments to be made for voting yes May 14 if this is indeed the choice. Going the property tax route would place the burden squarely on the shoulders of homeowners in Ellis County -- to the tune of an increased 7.5 to 10 mills for five years. Utilizing the sales tax method would spread the cost amongst all county residents, and everybody visiting Ellis County for the next five years who purchase anything.
We don't perceive the special election as this type of either/or situation. The public notice containing the exact language of the ballot question doesn't either. It is a yes/no question regarding the half-cent sales tax to be imposed on all retail purchases.
As the total cost of the collective improvements likely will surpass $14 million, the distinction is important. A homeowner who is not persuaded of the necessity of the "Project" might see it in his or her best interest to vote against it. However, if the property tax potential is lurking right behind this special election, it would change the best interest.
The perception was reinforced with the brochure all county residents received recently. "How do we pay for it?" is followed by "Property tax or Sales tax?"
In a front-page story on Friday, commissioners Dean Haselhorst and Swede Holmgren appeared to back away from the letter they signed the week prior.
"I will not be one of those commissioners that says, 'I will raise your property taxes' if this goes down," Haselhorst said.
Holmgren added: "If this thing were not to pass, I don't think at this point in time that I would be in favor of a property tax."
Only Commissioner Barb Wasinger was consistent with the letter's message: "If we don't do it with a sales tax, the next logical step is we're going to have to raise (property) taxes to pay for it," she said.
With just over two weeks to go, such confusion needs to be eliminated. Voters rightfully should be voting on the merits of the project, not the method of payment. To insist otherwise strikes us as slightly disingenuous.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry