Ellis County voters will likely be asked in the spring to vote on whether they want a half-cent sales tax in Ellis County to pay for ambulance service and road and bridge upkeep.

The county’s three commissioners wrangled with various options for a sales tax at a special work session Tuesday to discuss the tax. Ultimately they agreed they’d like to put the question to voters through a mail-in ballot election.

The idea is to split the proceeds of a portion of a countywide sales tax with the county’s cities. The commissioners have said previously the cities wouldn’t likely support a sales tax if they don’t get a share.

Ellis County would get 41 percent of the shared revenue, while the cities would get the remainder, with Hays taking the biggest chunk.

In advance of the election, the commissioners will hold town hall meetings around the county to explain the purpose and details of the tax.

“I would encourage all department heads and elected officials to be a part of this. It’s going to take all of us to make it work,” Commissioner Dean Haselhorst said. “If nothing else it’s a great way to meet the people in Schoenchen, it’s a great way to meet the people in Ellis, Victoria and Hays, in case you don’t know them already.”

The sales tax question is the tail end of a year-long effort by the commission to sharply slash a significant shortfall in the county’s 2020 budget and beyond. Cuts to departments, unfilled positions, benefits and funding of outside agencies have all entered the picture.

“The good news about our financial forecast, really excellent news, you’ve gained on the problem,” said County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes said. “We’re now in a position where we have no negative cash balance until 2024, and we’re only about $335,000 from our target in 2021, which, that $335,000 is a big number in my personal finances, but in terms of the county that’s virtually a rounding error. There’s been significant progress made.”

The commissioners made substantial progress by limiting increases in insurance rates to about 6 percent over the next three years, Smith-Hanes said.

“By lowering that cost, you’re saving $600,000 a year, just in insurance premiums by 2024,” he said. “So the decisions you all have made have been very significant in changing this picture.”

Now the challenge is with funding capital-intensive projects, Smith-Hanes said, from bridge replacement to unfunded positions.

“From a capital forecast, there are unfunded needs for buildings, for equipment, and then the big dog is road and bridge capital,” he said.

This is the second time in recent history for a county sales tax on the ballot, with the last one going for building remodeling and construction, with it expiring just last fall.

Haselhorst, a longtime member of the commission, was a part of the town hall educational meetings in advance of the election for that sales tax round, along with Ellis County Clerk Donna Maskus and Public Works Director Bill Ring.

This will be the first for Commissioners Butch Schlyer and Dustin Roths, who joined the commission at the start of this year.

“I kind of thought it was a lot of fun actually,” said Haselhorst of the town halls. “I got to meet a lot of people I didn’t know in the past. It was very educational. By the second round, there were a lot of questions, the first round, not so much. Donna probably remembers, and Bill, a lot of questions got asked.”

Haselhorst said the commissioners and Smith-Hanes will start looking at town hall meeting sites in Schoenchen, Victoria, Ellis and Hays.

The commissioners will vote on the final wording for the sales tax election resolution at their regular meeting Sept. 16 in the basement of the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main St.

The plan agreed on Tuesday calls for a quarter-cent sales tax to raise money for the county’s Emergency Medical Services. By law, Ellis County can keep all the proceeds from that tax.

A second quarter-cent sales tax would be a general sales tax that the law requires the county share with its cities. The commissioners want to use that revenue to fund Ellis County Public Works.

Both taxes would automatically expire, or sunset, after 10 years.

During the more than hour-long discussion in the basement conference room of BriefSpace, 219 W. 10th St., Haselhorst noted that the tax revenue for road and bridge upkeep would make up for some of the funding taken from the county’s road and bridge department over the past decade to offset budget shortfalls.

“We’ve taken a lot of money out of road and bridge, to the tune of millions of dollars over the past 11 years that I’ve been here,” Haselhorst said.

“As much as we’ve been cut,” Ring said, repair costs have gone up over the years, and his department will continue to apply for grants. “We’re way behind the eight ball right now, by people, and equipment, so just keep that in mind.”

Revenue from the sales taxes will amount to about $2.4 million for the county, said Roths. About $800,000 a year of that would go to road and bridge.

“A large majority of the citizens of Ellis County live in the city of Hays and avoid county roads like the plague and so I don’t know that they’ll be — whereas 90 percent of our calls for EMS services are within the city of Hays — so I don’t know that they’ll be as understanding of this. I think that that will be a hurdle for us. But at the same time I think it’s something we should allow them to vote on.”

“And also, half of it is going to their city,” added Smith Hanes.

“How many people that live in the cities have some connection to farming and the oil field industry, et cetera?” asked Ring. “If we don’t provide for that infrastructure, our roads, it’s going to directly, negatively, impact the city. If we can’t have good roads for oil production, et cetera, and the other industries, that provide the services? You know Midwest Energy gets a lot of income because of the amount of electricity provided to these offsite places, the disposal companies. The oilfield industry is a large, multi-faceted operation.”

Haselhorst agreed.

“The guys hauling crude oil, the majority of them that drive from Plains Marketing, well, they all live actually within the city of Hays,” he said. “If they can’t go down the Codell Road, they get paid by how much oil they haul, they get paid by the barrel, if they can’t get there, their hours are going to get cut. I think it’s all back to education. And I really think we’ll be fine.”

Roths reiterated his interest in funding EMS services.

“We need to make a commitment to let people know that we are going to have the best EMS service in western Kansas,” Roths said. “If they’re going to be willing to pull money out of their pocket directly for it on every purchase that they make, we got to make a commitment to that department.”

He said he hopes the tax revenue could make a difference on county-city partnerships with Hays.

“I think they’d be real supportive and maybe they’ll be more willing to help us on some of their infrastructure projects that directly benefit them with this money,” Roths said.