Saturday, April 5, 2014

Why I will vote against Prop A

Tuesday, I will vote against the sales tax for Rolla parks and The Centre.

I am not against the parks. I am not against The Centre. My vote is rational and predictable. I’m just doing what I said I would do some 15 years ago.

Lots of us will do what we said we would do. We supported the tax at the beginning to help get the facility built, but we said that once the tax was done, the facility was on its own.

There were plenty of promises made that the tax would last no more than 15 years. The proponents of Prop A tell you that such pledges were never made.

Well, they were, and all it takes is a little review of history.

For instance, on Tuesday, April 27, 1998, this newspaper reported that the Rolla City Council held a workshop the night before that included Mayor-elect Joe Morgan (now deceased) and several council members who would be sworn in at the May meeting. At the workshop, the council discussed the ballot language for the tax.

The consensus was that the ballot question should spell out that the tax would be used to build “at a minimum” an indoor walking track, an indoor swimming pool and aquatic center, an outdoor aquatic facility and an indoor recreation center. The consensus also was that the tax should be a half-cent tax “for not more than 15 years.”

Do you think the time limit was set just as an enticement to get us to vote for the tax? Or do you think the council expected it would indeed operate the recreation center without a subsidy?

Councilman Lou Magdits, chair of the council’s ad hoc recreation committee, now a candidate for mayor, obviously believed the recreation center would stand on its own legs, for he said the time limit would mean the city government would “get out of your pocket” faster.

Dr. William Moorkamp, who headed up the “grassroots” group that worked with the council to promote the sales tax, and Magdits both supported approaching the project with expectations of a 100 percent recapture rate.

“Recapture rates of 100 percent are, in fact, the trend,” Moorkamp assured all those present.
The consensus at that workshop also was to keep the recreation center funds separate from the park funds.

Just a few days after that workshop, in a guest commentary published Sunday, May 3, 1998, Dr. Moorkamp wrote under the title “Clarifying the rec-plex proposal” that his “grassroots” committee wanted to make sure the city council would  “sunset the tax after building the facilities.”

He explained: “By ending the tax as soon as feasible the City will need to manage the facilities to pay for themselves through user fees. We have seen this at most facilities we have visited. This MUST be clear to all before we begin operations.”

Dr. Moorkamp was pretty emphatic.

Then at the May 4, 1998, regular meeting, the council approved the ordinance calling for an August election on a sales tax to fund the construction of the recreation center with a sales tax of one-half of one percent to be levied for 15 years.

I also want you to understand that before the August 1998 election, what the city defined for us as a recreation center was basketball courts and volleyball courts, not cardio equipment and weightlifting machines or free weights. In a story published May 20, Rolla parks and recreation director Ken Kwantes said the facility would not have features that would compete with private facilities in Rolla,

For instance, it would not have any weight facility or racquetball courts as does Vessell’s Fitness Complex and Family Fitness, he said.

The assurances to voters that the tax was temporary and the center would be able to stand on its own continued throughout the summer before the election.

In a July 30, 1998, story on Page 1A, headlined “Residents still have questions about the proposed recreation center,” city officials addressed concerns from the public.

The No. 1 question from the public was about the fees. City officials said the fees would be like those of the Farmington recreation center, about $320 per year for a family, $192 for adults, $136 for youth 15-18 and $80 for those 14 and under.

Another question was whether the recreation center was meant for all or just the wealthy “country club types.”

Mayor Morgan said the daily rates—$8 for family, $3.50 per adult, $2 for 14 and under—should make it affordable to all to use it from time to time. Moreover, there would be scholarship funds and work programs available for those who could not afford to pay the full fee.

City Administrator John Butz pledged the revenue and expenses of the proposed recreation center would be kept accountable and  separate from any other city accounts.

Moorkamp added that the site visits to other recreation centers demonstrated how important it is to have the center and its director isolated from other responsibilities and accountable with the city government.

In the July 30, 1998, Progress Edition, Moorkamp said, “We want accountability, in that there are four features, plus we wouldn’t want a tax forever. That’s why we had the sunset part in for 15 years.
After that time, the facility has got to run over a 100 percent rate.”

Those assurances worked, for the Rolla Daily News bannered on Page 1A on Aug. 5, 1998: “Rolla will have its recreation center.”

Only one ward declined to support the tax. By precinct, the vote was as follows: Ward 1: 84-98; Ward 2: 371-145; Ward 3: 426-252; Ward 4: 423-256; Ward 5: 136-102 and Ward 6: 89-38.
Sales tax collection was to start Jan. 1, 1999.

On Tuesday, Aug. 25, 1998, the paper reported that Butz, even before the tax collection began, was planning on spending it for other purposes. Working on the next fiscal year’s budget, Butz recommended putting about $55,000 of the new sales tax revenue to be used in parks projects not related to the recreation center issue. The council and mayor scoffed at the idea.

“I totally disagree with that. I think we’re accountable for every cent of that going to the recreation center,” Mayor Joe Morgan told Butz.

The council ordered a separate fund to keep track of the money.

In this column after the election, I wrote:

“When we voters approved that half-cent sales tax for a recreation center on Tuesday, Aug. 4, I believe we performed an act of religious devotion, for it appears to me that we put a lot of faith in the city government.

“We agreed to sacrifice to the city government a half-cent sales tax for the next 15 years. Not a big personal sacrifice, perhaps a sacrifice of only the size of a mustard seed, but a sacrifice nonetheless, for it will add to each person’s cost of living. Over the course of 15 years, a mighty revenue tree will sprout, for the city government will receive quite a hefty amount from that small sacrifice.

“We agreed to trust the city government ‘to accomplish at minimum an indoor walking track, an indoor swimming pool/aquatic center, an outdoor aquatic facility and an indoor recreation center.’

“We gave our City Fathers our sacrifice and our trust to do what is best for us for we approved the tax with no design for any of those facilities, no estimate of the cost to build those facilities, only a wispy idea of what would go into those facilities and just a flimsy idea of what it will cost to join the center once it is built.

“Apparently, the overwhelming majority of us believe our Fathers have taken care of civic needs properly in the past and are worthy of our blind faith for the future.

“Let’s all bow our heads and pray they don’t screw it up.”

The city council and administration say they haven’t screwed it up, that instead market forces out of their control have worked against them. They cite the university’s recreation center, which took away their student users; the crummy economy, and a partnership with the hospital that they say fell through.

Because of this, the city officials say, they need the tax to help subsidize The Centre.

I’m not going to fall for that. All the other recreation facilities in town lost customers when the university built a recreation center. All the businesses in town have to deal with the crummy economy.

And when partnerships fall through or industry trends change, private businesses can’t call on taxpayers for help. Every businessman in town understands that; every employee in the private sector understands that.

So I am going to vote no and not feel guilty about it. I did what I said I would do. I supported The Centre with my tax money for the last 15 years.

Now it’s up to the city to make it work, just like they said they would.

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