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County hopes third time's a charm

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

Ellis County commissioners have been down this road before.

In 2002, a county sales tax proposal for expansion and improvements to the county jail and law enforcement center was rejected by Ellis County voters.

In 2008, a bond issue which would have moved county offices from the courthouse to the Hadley Center was forced to a vote after a petition drive, and it, too, was defeated on the ballot.

In 2013, Ellis County commissioners will try again. This time, commissioners are asking voters to approve a 0.5-percent sales tax for expansion and renovation to the county jail, law enforcement center and construction of an EMS/rural fire building in a special election this spring or summer.

Ellis County commissioner Dean Haselhorst said the key to the measure's success is voter education.

"We're going to have to educate the public well, with town hall meetings across Ellis County," Haselhorst said. "I think we're going to have to show them what kind of felons are actually in our jail. We're going to have to show them how much money we're spending every day and every month to house these prisoners out of the county."

In this special election, the county won't compete with the city for voter approval of a question. In 2002 and 2008, the county ballot question was joined by sales tax questions from the city.

In 2002, the county was seeking a 10-year, 0.5-percent sales tax to expand and renovate the law enforcement center. At the same time, the city was asking for a separate 10-year, 0.5-percent sales tax to remodel the police department's share of the LEC, build a second fire station, improve streets and storm water infrastructure, build a sports complex, and boost economic development investments. The county question failed, getting 35 percent of the vote, while the city question also failed, with 44 percent of the vote.

If voters had approved both ballot questions, approximately $40 million in sales tax revenue would have been collected in 10 years.

"That is a stunning amount of money today, and I'm sure it was even more stunning 10 years ago. It was too large," said Hays Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV, who was mayor at the time of the 2002 sales tax question.

"I'm sure we had documented what we would do, but terms of how we would communicate that to people -- I remember going to civic groups -- it really wasn't that well thought out," he said. "In order for these things to work, you have to have a sense of what voters will vote for, and what they believe is important. The problem is, this was too large, and I don't think anyone wanted this stuff."

In 2008, the county's $5 million bond issue to move office space to Hadley Center, 205 E. Seventh, was put on the ballot after a petition drive garnered enough signatures to force a referendum. The county's measure, which would have added 1.06 mills to the county's mill levy for 20 years, was rejected by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. The city's ballot question -- a 0.5 percent sales tax to fund construction of a sports complex -- was approved with 55 percent of the vote.

Dennis Pfannenstiel, a county commissioner in 2008, said the dueling ballot questions played a factor in the county's defeat.

"There were too many things on the agenda," Pfannenstiel said. "I personally think the reason it lost was because we didn't get wholehearted support from the city at that time. There again, we had the sports complex (on the city ballot), and we were trying to get that half-cent (tax) for purchase of the Hadley building. I think people just think enough is enough. I'm afraid that's what's going to happen this time, too."

Three times in 11 years the county has come before the voters, and in two of those elections the city also had ballot questions.

Schwaller said that, moving forward, city and county leaders will need to work together; he is optimistic that can happen. The city and county did work together on this measure, with the city of Hays entering into an interlocal agreement with the county to give its share of sales tax revenue to the county for this project.

"I think residents are concerned about taxes, they're concerned about government not listening to them, and I think voters and residents of the county are going to force us to work together," Schwaller said. "To deliver the services people want and to do it efficiently, we are absolutely going to have to work together, because we can't continue down the path we have the last 12 years.

"I think we're going to be forced to work together if we don't do it on our own initiative."