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Ellis County Commissioners continue to speak to small crowds

4/24/2013

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

Ellis County Commissioner Barbara Wasinger tried to put a positive spin on Tuesday night's sparsely attended public forum to discuss the proposed county sales tax.

The first three of six scheduled town hall meetings each have been lightly attended, with almost as many county officials as members of the public present at the two in Hays. On Tuesday at the American Legion, the audience consisted of fewer than two dozen people.

"It's nice to see all of the people who work for the county being very supportive of this, and very passionate about this," Wasinger said of county officials who took turns making presentations. "Unfortunately, I wish more people were here to see it.

"But you can look at it two different ways: It's either people aren't coming because they think they understand it already, or a bad way, they don't like the issue. I'm hoping the reason we're not getting as many numbers here in Hays is because people understand the issue and the need for the project."

Ellis County Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst thinks people are starting to see the need for the project.

"People are getting more educated, and I think it's a good turning point for us," he said. "People are definitely seeing it's a need for the county."

Carol Griffith, Hays, said she didn't realize how cramped the buildings were that house the Ellis County Rural Fire Department and Ellis County Emergency Medical Services.

"Too many cramped quarters are not a good thing," she said.

Griffith became concerned after District Judge Glenn Braun described how the courthouse has the potential for danger on trial days.

"If I had realized if I went up to the courthouse to pay my taxes that I was in jeopardy, I would not have slept the last 20 years," she said during the forum's question-and-answer period.

Her response drew a few laughs, but after the meeting Griffith said she was serious. Her solution was to mail her taxes in the future.

"I don't know I'm happy about the jail over there, tripping over prisoners," she said. "Not happy about that at all."

To start the meeting, Wasinger touched briefly on how it has been determined by the space needs committee the need is there for the proposed project, and mentioned funding options.

"Now the decision is: How are we going to pay for it?," Wasinger said. "Do we want to pass a sales tax and be done with them in a short period of time, and get paid for and be done with that, or do we want to start over, go through by using bonding methods, and perhaps raising property taxes?

"That's the decision that needs to be made on May 14, and that's the decision in front of us today."

There will be a special election May 14 for voters to consider a 0.5-percent county sales tax. It would go toward construction of an EMS/rural fire building, as well as renovation and expansion of the county jail, Law Enforcement Center and courthouse.

The total cost has been estimated at $12.3 million. Adding interest, the cost would be approximately $14.3 million. The sales tax would sunset after five years or when the project is paid off, whichever comes first.

Ellis County EMS Director Kerry McCue said response time isn't an issue with the project. Already, EMS responds in approximately 4 minutes in the county and in 2 minutes in the city, The issue is lack of space, he said.

"We need to do this," he said. "These are projects that should have been done several years ago."

Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees said the jail capacity will increase from 30 beds to 76, and as a result the county no longer will need to regularly house prisoners out of county.

"This should give us sufficient capacity for 20, 25 years," Drees said.

Ellis County Commissioner Swede Holmgren said the courthouse portion of the project "is a public security and safety issue."

Griffith is sold on that point, and on the project.

"Absolutely," Griffith said. "Need it right now."

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Remaining public forums

(all times 7 p.m.)

Thursday -- VFW, Ellis

May 8 --  VFW, Hays

May 9 -- American Legion, Hays