The Ellis County Commission has their answer from the small cities in the county.

Ellis, Schoenchen and Victoria each say they will support a half-cent, countywide sales tax if they get their share of the money, instead of Ellis County taking it all to fix its budget crisis.

“We acknowledge that the county has needs, but so do we, including streets, sewer and water that for us these are just as urgent and compelling as are the county needs,” wrote the Schoenchen City Council in its April 16 letter to the commission. “It is therefore our position that all county and municipal needs be addressed with the proposed county wide sales tax.”

An April 19 letter from the mayor of the city of Ellis was similar.

“It was the Council’s unanimous consensus to support the County pursuing a half-cent sales tax and for the City’s portion to be returned to the City of Ellis,” wrote Mayor David McDaniel. “The Council was undecided on the specific programs to dedicate the sales tax to, although the previous additional sales tax was split between water exploration and special projects.”

The letters are included in the agenda packet for the Ellis County Commission’s regular meeting at 5 p.m. Monday in the commission room of the Ellis County Administrative Building, 718 Main St.

The commissioners in April asked County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes to get the reaction of the cities to a sales tax.

The money could help ease a serious budget shortfall in coming years that is threatening deep cuts to county services, county employee wages and benefits, and county hiring.

The county has been scrutinizing its 2020 budget to find $2 million in reductions.

Any countywide sales tax would require approval of the county’s registered voters.

In his letter, Victoria Mayor John Schulte said the Victoria City Council also was in favor of the half-cent sales tax.

“The City of Victoria would most likely retain our portion of the tax, with the funds being placed into our reserve accounts as was done the last time the County had a similar sales tax,” he wrote. “A small portion of these funds may also be used to renovate our City Hall, a project which is probably 10 years overdue.”

Sharing the money would more than halve what the county gets.

By an equation set out in Kansas law, if shared, Hays would get 49.12 percent of the money collected, the county would get 41.65 percent, Ellis would get 5.75 percent, Victoria 3.06 percent and Schoenchen just under half of 1 percent, said Ellis County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes in April.

During that discussion, Ellis County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst was firm that the county must share.

He said at the time the tax would fail otherwise.

“I’m not going to single out we’re going to take it all,” Haselhorst said. “Because I think that’s going to crash, quicker than you can imagine. If we’re going to say Ellis County is going to keep it all, it’s going to crash .... Because why would Victoria vote for it? Why would Ellis vote for it? Why would the city of Hays vote for it?”

The commissioners could call no later than mid-September for a special election, and if approved, collection would start Jan. 1, 2020, said Smith-Hanes. If waiting until the next general election in November 2020, the tax would start April 1, 2021, he said.

By law, the county could set a tax in one-quarter increments, up to 1 percent. At the lowest rate, one-quarter percent, a countywide sales tax could generate about $1.55 million annually, said Smith-Hanes. Of that, the county would keep about $630,000. 

County Commissioner Butch Schlyer said in April that a quarter-cent sales tax shared with the cities wouldn’t do much to solve the county’s problems. He said he supports a half-cent tax.

In 2013, county voters approved a countywide sales tax to pay for construction and renovation of county buildings, but that tax had a five-year limit and ended in October.

While a letter from the City of Hays wasn’t included in the commissioners agenda packet, sales tax came up at the Hays City Commission’s regular meeting Thursday at City Hall.

City Commissioner Ron Mellick made mention of leftover money from the previous half-cent tax.

“I would like for us to formally contact the county commission and ask for our percentage of the excess sales tax that was collected,” Mellick told the city commissioners. “I believe they had indicated they would decide what they were going  to do in April, and we still haven’t heard anything, so I would like to formally request our percentage of that collected sales tax, the excess.”

“Very good,” said Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller IV.

“As a matter of protocol, do the other commissioners concur with that?” asked city manager Toby Dougherty.

“Absolutely,” said Schwaller. “Yes,” said City Commissioner Shaun Musil, while City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs nodded yes.

“I will send a letter to the County Administrator,” Dougherty said.

That 2013 tax was implemented to repay two bond issues to finance the county construction projects. Those bonds were paid off in August, but the tax didn’t expire until Sept. 30.

About half the sales tax money belongs to the city of Hays, which had forfeited its share to the county as its contribution toward paying a share of the building renovations.

Smith-Hanes said last fall that he’d see if Hays wanted its remaining share returned.

The excess at that time totaled about $1.396 million, with more set to arrive from the state.

He told the commissioners the full leftover amount could easily be spent for pending projects that were left out of the renovation budget to ensure the county didn’t overspend collections.

Other projects to finish out the work could include jail cameras, law enforcement center elevator and HVAC, renovations to a court room, door replacement at the emergency services building and some up-sizing of generators, Smith-Hanes said.