Whether a half-cent or a quarter-cent, whether shared or not shared, Ellis County’s three commissioners at their regular meeting Monday evening admitted they don’t agree on the details of a proposed countywide sales tax.
Speaking at the end of the nearly hourlong discussion, commission chairman Dean Haselhorst said that will have to change.
“So for next week commissioners, we kind of have three different opinions,” Haselhorst said. “We’re going to have to come together as one, because if we’re going to go out and tell the public how we feel, we have to be unified or you don’t do it at all.”
The county is looking at a countywide sales tax to fix its budget crisis in coming years that is threatening deep cuts to county services, county employee wages and benefits, and county hiring.
Any countywide sales tax would require approval by the county’s registered voters.
Sharing the money would more than halve what the county gets.
Following 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, according to Ellis County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.
It’s estimated a quarter-cent special purpose sales tax, which wouldn’t have to be shared, would raise $1.6 million for the county.
A general purpose half-cent tax, which would have to be shared, would raise $1.55 million, with the county keeping about $630,000.
Commissioner Dustin Roths, a resident and business owner in Hays, lobbied the other commissioners Monday evening for the quarter-cent tax. Roths said he couldn’t support a half-cent tax because the city of Hays, which would receive half the proceeds, doesn’t need the money.
“I just struggle trying to raise taxes for them when they are not in a financial bind,” Roths said.
Commissioner Butch Schlyer said he’d support a half-cent tax, but only if it’s shared.
“Commissioner Roths, perhaps if the city of Hays doesn’t need that money, they can just lower their property taxes instead,” said Schlyer, who brought up several times that the cities could cut their property taxes with the sales tax.
Roths brought up again what he’s said at previous meetings, that he’d like to ask the public to vote on a quarter-cent tax to fund Ellis County’s EMS services.
“I always want to come into things with restraint, and I think a quarter cent is enough,” Roths said. Any extra could go to public works, he said.
“A dedicated sales tax is vitally important. I also see it as an economic driver,” he said. “The idea that we can make that something special about Ellis County and attract retired people to our county.”
He suggested Health Services Director Kerry McCue attend next week’s meeting and explain the county’s EMS services, including the difference between an EMT versus a paramedic.
“Why can a paramedic save my life when I’m having a heart attack much better than an EMT because of their ability to treat me on scene?” Roths said. “Those are the things that I think need to be talked about.”
All three commissioners argued the importance of maintaining the county’s level of EMS services.
Admitting the quarter-cent is enticing so as to keep all the money in the county, Haselhorst said, he originally favored a half-cent tax to split between EMS and road and bridge repairs.
“Talking public safety, if we don’t have roads, you can’t get the EMS there anyway,” Haselhorst said. “So if Bill starts closing roads next week and the ambulance has to drive 5 extra miles to get to so and so’s house, you know you’re back to public safety.”
Smith-Hanes, however, explained that state statute requires a general purpose sales tax be split among the cities.
A special purpose quarter-cent tax must be dedicated to public health services, Smith-Hanes said, That could include EMS, but also to defray the cost of the county’s contribution to High Plains Mental Health Center, or to fund the Health Department, among other things.
“But road and bridge is not one of those things,” Smith-Hanes said.
All the commissioners said they’d like to see the sales tax question on the general election ballot in November.
The cities of Ellis, Schoenchen and Victoria each have said in letters to the commission that they will support a half-cent countywide sales tax if they get their share of the money.
City of Hays officials didn’t respond to a county letter asking if Hays officials would support a sales tax.
The county has been scrutinizing its 2020 budget to find $2 million in reductions.