Ellis County voters will decide this April whether to add up to a half-cent of sales tax to all their local purchases.
The 10-year sales tax would raise about $2.2 million annually to ease Ellis County’s ongoing severe budget crunch.
All three county commissioners approved a resolution Monday evening calling for a special mail ballot election April 7.
“I think that this is great that we are going to have this done before budget time,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths, referring to discussions in 2020 for the 2021 budget. “I think if we had to do another budget next year without knowing whether or not funds are available, there are some departments that would see massive cuts, if not completely dissolving.”
The April mail ballot will ask voters about two different sales taxes, said County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.
One question will seek a quarter-cent tax for health services, with all the proceeds going to Ellis County.
A second question will seek a quarter-cent general sales tax to share with all the cities in the county.
If both are approved, it would add a half-cent tax on each dollar spent.
“If these sales taxes passed,” said Smith-Hanes, “you are looking at potential revenues of $2.2 million annually for a 10-year period, and would anticipate that the first revenues would start by the end of 2020.”
Since a special election wasn’t anticipated in the county’s 2020 budget, the expense could come from a $140,000 contingency fund, Smith-Hanes told the commissioners during their regular meeting Monday at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main St.
“The county election officer estimates at least $20,500 for the cost of printing ballots and envelopes, postage for mailing out the ballots, and the return postage, required publications, election supplies, and the costs of election board workers,” said Smith-Hanes.
He also recommended adding the cost of printing and sending out an informational mailer to voters, about $3,525.
The sales tax question has been the tail end of a yearlong effort by the commission to sharply slash a significant shortfall in the county’s 2020 budget and beyond. Unfilled positions, cuts to departments, benefits and funding of outside agencies have all entered the picture.
This is the second time in recent history for a county sales tax on the ballot, with the last one approved and going for building remodeling and construction. It expired last fall.
Longtime commissioner and commission chairman Dean Haselhorst was a part of the town hall educational meetings in advance of the election for that sales tax round.
The April sales tax questions will be the first for commissioners Butch Schlyer and Roths, who joined the commission at the start of the year.
“Us three must continue to understand this could not pass, both of them could not pass, one could pass and the other not,” Roths said Monday evening. “So I think the discussions we have with the citizens of this county about what might happen if we are forced to make some hard decisions next year are important for them to know and understand before the election.”
Haselhorst has said the commissioners and Smith-Hanes will start looking at town hall meeting sites in Schoenchen, Victoria, Ellis and Hays.
“We’ll spend the next seven, eight months doing our best job to have people understand what we already know,” Roths said, “because we’ve seen and been tracking the finances of our county.”
The plan the commissioners agreed to Aug. 27 in a special work session calls for a quarter-cent sales tax to raise money for the county’s Emergency Medical Services. By Kansas law, Ellis County can keep all the proceeds from that tax.
The 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.
In another effort to leave no stone unturned for boosting county revenue, the commission was considering hiring a consultant to review the county’s user fees and possible increases or adjustments, as well as examine services done in-house that could be provided contractually by a third party.
Smith-Hanes said he researched the process and decided to come back to the commissioners for guidance.
“In doing the research I found that other entities that have done similar studies have paid around $40,000, give or take, for that kind of a study,” Smith-Hanes said. “So I thought, you know what, I’ll check back in with the commission on that.”
He said the total amount of revenue the county is budgeted to receive from goods, services, fees, licenses and permits is $127,536.
“So you would have to increase that by over 31% in order to recoup the cost of a $40,000 study,” Smith-Hanes said. “So do you want me to go forward or not? That’s the question for this evening.”
Haselhorst declined to move it forward.
"I think we need to put this on the shelf 'til 2020 and review it maybe at that point,” he said. “I just don’t see where this study is going to benefit the county as of right now ... I feel my fellow commissioners and myself have done an excellent job of cutting, and our department heads have done an excellent job of also being more efficient.”
Schlyer said, “I agree 100% with the chair.”
Roths agreed but said a review of some kind is in order.
“I don’t think we need to do this right now,” he said. “But I do think on a department basis, if they look into and talk with our peer counties and make sure that we’re not overcharging, but not undercharging too, because we don’t have the liberty to undercharge for things right now, and yes this is way more money than I was expecting, so I think we pass on this right now.”