With two county commissioners for it and one against it, Ellis County will wait until at least 2020 to put a proposed countywide sales tax on the ballot for residents to vote on.
“I don’t think we have time to educate ourselves and the public,” said Ellis County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst at the county’s regular Monday evening meeting at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main St.
“I don’t think we have enough time to put it on the ballot in November,” said Haselhorst, who was involved in getting the last countywide sales tax. For that go around, he said, county staff spent months getting educational information ready for the public. “I just feel we’re jumping in the wagon and we don’t have a horse to pull it yet.”
With the commissioners looking at a sales tax to ease the county’s budget crisis, right now they are awaiting final budget numbers for 2020 that aren’t yet available. That includes the county share of employee health care costs in 2020 and county contributions to outside agencies that rely on the county for some of their funding.
Haselhorst said the process took about a year last time, including holding 10 townhall meetings around the county to give residents details.
The next election in the county is Nov. 5, when voters elect city commissioners and school board members. City-school elections historically bring out 20 percent of registered voters, said County Clerk Donna Maskus.
For that election, advance voting begins Oct. 21, voter registration closes Oct. 15, federal ballots are mailed out by Sept. 20, and the election machine vendor needs information no later than Sept. 5 to prepare ballots, said County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes. A resolution is required to put the sales tax on the ballot and that requires two legal publications, with the first Oct. 15, Smith-Hanes said.
The next general election opportunity after 2019 would be November 2020.
“The general elections that have a president or governor on them tend to draw more voters than the city-school elections do,” Smith-Hanes said.
“We don’t have sufficient time to do this. We’ve got a lot of education to do,” said County Commissioner Butch Schlyer. “You have to get this thing passed, but 20 percent voter turnout isn’t good, and we’re better off to work with the general election on that.”
Haselhorst and Schlyer have said previously they might support a general purpose half-cent sales tax for Emergency Services and critical road and bridge repairs, but it would have to be shared with the cities of Hays, Ellis, Victoria and Schoenchen. But both admitted Monday they aren't convinced a sales tax is needed, until they see more numbers.
Ellis County Commissioner Dustin Roths has said he could support only a quarter-cent tax that wouldn’t be shared and which state law reserves for county health services, such as EMS. Roths affirmed throughout the discussion that he wants the sales tax on the Nov. 5, 2019 ballot.
“I’m not so worried about voter turnout. Whoever shows up gets to vote, and if they don’t show up, they don’t get a vote,” Roths said. “I think we will appeal to people who pay attention to our county budget, to people who pay attention to the level of EMS service that we provide. As I’ve said before, a quarter-cent EMS tax is something that I can get behind.”
Waiting until 2020 gives the public a chance to see two budget cycles, Schlyer said.
“They’re going to be well aware that things are pretty tight here at the county after two budget cycles,” he said.
Roths said two budget cycles could mean the county will lose talented employees who worry about job security due to the county’s budget problems.
He also suggested that the 2020 general election could be challenging for a sales tax.
“I can tell you right now, the president of the United States will be on the ballot in 2020 and there will be a lot of conservative people out to vote,” he said. “So when they see a sales tax and who they’re voting for there, I’m a little concerned with the idea of the bet on this.”
Roths continued to speak out for Nov. 5, 2019, asking what does the county have to lose.
Schlyer pointed to the commission’s lack of agreement.
“When I do something, I want to do it right. To try and rush into this thing isn’t right,” Schlyer said. “We don’t even agree right now on what tax we’re going to have. We’ve had three different opinions. I’m not certain we’re going to come to agreement. It might be a 2-1 decision. Let’s not rush into this until we can get this thing right.” he said. “I’m not fearful what a loss might bring. It’s going to bring what the taxpayers want, pure and simple.”
Roths mentioned at last week’s meeting and several times Monday that he’d like to hear from EMS Director Kerry McCue, who retires Dec. 15, and his replacement Jason Kennedy. They could speak about the high-quality of the county’s EMS service and the issue of an EMS sales tax, Roths said.
“I’d still like to hear from Kerry and Jason, if they’d like to talk,” he said. “I’d like to hear their confidence, if they have any, or if they’d say the same thing, maybe we look into a different budget cycle.”
Haselhorst, who chairs the commission, disagreed.
“To answer your question, Kerry and Jason I’m not going to bring you up here,” said Haselhorst. “I’m not putting you in that situation until we actually agree on what we’re thinking up here.”
Roths has mentioned at several meetings, including Monday’s, that he’s a conservative.
“The idea of trying to convince me of a sales tax for a half cent is going to be tough,” he said. “I believe that we risk raising taxes higher than they absolutely need to be, and I take taxation very seriously. I take the idea of us taking money out of hard-working people’s pocket if we don’t need it or if it’s not a business decision between us and them, very seriously.”
The county, by sharing with the cities, he said, is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist in Hays, which would get about half the proceeds of the tax.
“The city of Hays does not have financial problems,” Roths said, explaining again his preference for a quarter-cent tax devoted to EMS.
“So is that saying you want to make a motion for a quarter-cent sales tax, is that what you’re leaning to, I’m gathering?” Haselhorst asked.
“That’s what I would lean toward, yes,” said Roths.
Schlyer spoke up, saying, “Commissioner, I won’t support a quarter-cent sales tax. If you and Dean want to do it, include me out.”
“So I take it you are going to make a motion?” Haselhorst asked Roths.
“Yes, I make a motion we put a quarter-cent sales tax specific to EMS service in Ellis County, Kansas for the Nov. 5th ballot election cycle,” Roths replied.
“I’ll second that,” Haselhorst said. “Further discussion? All in favor say aye.”
“Aye,” Roths said.
“Those against?” Haselhorst asked.
“Aye,” Schlyer said. “Aye,” said Haselhorst.
“Motion fails,” Haselhorst said, “two to one.”
"Thank you both, we have a lot of work to do to get this where it needs to be," Haselhorst said.