Your Turn: Don’t get fooled again; let’s have more talk before taxation

April Fools!

In 2008, Lawrence’s sales tax rate was 7.3 percent. That year Lawrence voters approved three special sales taxes for an increase of .55 percent that we’ve been paying since April 1, 2009. Also during that time, the state has increased its rate 1.2 percent, and three special taxing districts have been added in Lawrence that tack on another 1 percent. That means today you are paying 9.05 percent or 10.05 percent depending on where you shop in Lawrence. And now, even though the 2009 special taxes were set to only last 10 years, the city is coming back and asking us to start paying them all over again for another 10 years beginning April 1, 2019.

Even though they like to say it’s not really an increase because “we’ve already been paying them,” it IS an increase over what we are supposed to be paying after March 31, 2019. They are asking us to be the worst kind of fools by pranking ourselves on April 1, 2019. Don’t fall for it!

We have enough increases to deal with already. The following are in effect now or will be in 2018:

• 1.25 Lawrence city mill levy increase.

• 1.76 Douglas County mill levy increase.

• 3.65 USD 497 mill levy increase (6.66 mill total).

• $65 annual increase to the average city utility bill.

• State income tax increases.

The future doesn’t exactly appear bright either: 2018 is likely to bring more economic woes from the state as it works to resolve the school funding debacle. The county’s efforts to address concerns about jail capacity and a mental health crisis center won’t come cheap. And who knows what will happen at the federal level (taxes, health care, etc.). That is a lot to absorb in one year even without the city asking for another 10 years of sales tax increases — enough is enough!

It sure sounds like this could be the new budget strategy too. Apparently the city didn’t plan ahead enough to make sure that these services could survive without renewing or repurposing sales taxes. Is that the fault of those who have been diligently paying that extra sales tax for 10 years, believing it would sunset as the ballot language promised? Should we fall into the same trap of throwing money at a problem without a clear solution?

We knew in 2005 that we had an affordable housing problem and it has only gotten worse since then, but will a 10-year sales tax of 0.05 percent really solve the problem? We should wait for the comprehensive housing report that is due out next spring to better identify critical housing priorities and possible funding alternatives.

The .3 percent portion of the special sales tax passed in 2008 because we needed additional funding to “catch up” with infrastructure projects. A flexible plan is in place for the next five years of projects, yet the renewal is requesting 10 more. Are we going to be playing “catch-up” for 10 more years? How much longer until we are back on track?

We also knew in 2008 that a steady stream of local funding would be needed for our transit system to qualify for additional state and federal funding. It appears as though the city was just planning on a sales tax renewal to foot the bill for the local funding source and again we must ask: For how much longer?

These problems will not go away on their own, but we need a better plan than a blank check. Vote NO on all three sales tax initiatives and let the city know we want to have an in-depth conversation about alternatives to renewing a sales tax every 10 years. We need to talk about wants versus needs and how to pay for them. We need to discuss the regressive nature of sales taxes and how they impact those who live below or near the poverty level (plus all the seniors on a fixed income). Finally, we need to address how to draw businesses to Lawrence to take on more of the property tax burden and bring jobs that lift people out of poverty.

These taxes don’t expire until March 31, 2019. That means there is time to get it right (or at least better) instead of jumping on the first offer and looking like April Fools for 10 whole years. Even city staff and commissioners have acknowledged that this vote leaves time for other options if the questions do not pass. So vote NO and join the discussion!

— Hayden Maples is the chair of the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, a nonprofit group urging voters to reject the renewal of the three sales taxes.