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Archive for Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Lawrence firms split on sales tax

School board member sees chamber survey as positive sign

January 13, 2004

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The Lawrence business community is nearly evenly split on the idea of a local sales tax to support public education, according to a Lawrence Chamber of Commerce survey.

Chamber officials said Monday that 39 percent of the respondents to their annual public policy survey were supportive of a countywide sales tax to fund public schools. About 37 percent opposed the idea, with the remainder either having no opinion or being undecided.

School board member Austin Turney said the results were positive, given that the survey polled primarily business owners -- a group he thought more likely to oppose an additional tax.

"From my point of view, it is a favorable response," Turney said. "I think what this demonstrates again is that there is a very strong interest in supporting education in this community."

Larry McElwain, chair of the chamber's board of directors, said the survey results showed that businesses understood the importance of education to the area economy.

"In any other community, it probably would be pretty loud and clear against the idea, but I think Lawrence is more wait and see since we place a tremendous value on education," McElwain said.

He said the results weren't conclusive enough for the chamber's board to take a formal position on a new sales tax. The group instead will wait until an official plan is presented, then do a more detailed survey of its members to gather their views on those specifics.

"Right now, I think it would be unclear what type of position we should take on that," McElwain said.

City, county and school district officials have been discussing the idea of creating a countywide 1/2-cent sales tax to provide funding for all the public school districts that serve children in Douglas County. State lawmakers will have to approve legislation allowing the idea to be put to a public vote because the county already levies the maximum sales tax allowed by law. That legislation has been drafted and is expected to be debated during this legislative session.

City officials could seek to create a 1/2-cent sales tax without receiving legislative approval, but school district officials have said they prefer the more comprehensive approach of a countywide tax.

The citywide tax also received less support in the chamber's poll. About 44 percent of respondents opposed a citywide tax, while 39 percent supported it.

"I think that shows there is beginning to be an understanding of the different aspects of the two processes," Turney said.

The survey was sent in October to the chamber's 1,650 members. About 9 percent responded. Members were asked their opinions on 22 questions.

Among the other issues was the future of the vacant Farmland Industries fertilizer plant along Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence.

Chamber members by a margin of 61 percent to 18 percent supported a public/private partnership to redevelop the 467-acre site. Members soundly opposed, 58 percent to 13 percent, an idea for area governments to take on the sole responsibility for redeveloping the site.

Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones, who is examining the possibility of the city and county becoming involved in redeveloping the property, said he agreed with the member's sentiment.

"I think it would be much better if it was a public/private partnership," Jones said. "In an ideal world, it would be done entirely by the private sector ... but we're not seeing any signs that is going to happen."

McElwain said the chamber may use the survey results to formulate an official position on a redevelopment plan for the property in the future.

"I know we will continue to encourage discussion on that issue because it is very important to us," McElwain said. "It is at a gateway to the city and it has a lot to do with economic development."

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