Midland City Council has proposed ballot language that would give the council the authority to spend sales tax dollars on just about anything. Should it pass on May’s local ballot as proposed, the measure would extend and repurpose the city sales tax for a staggering twenty-five years.
The 4b tax, established in 2000 for the repayment of debt issued to build the Scharbauer Sports Complex, is scheduled to end this spring if the council fails to take action. By repurposing the tax, council could continue to fund the complex while using additional revenue on other projects.
The ballot proposal (a single sentence with over 245 words) is a lengthy, convoluted list of how city officials could utilize the tax revenue. From land and facilities to promoting and expanding new business enterprises, the list contains nearly anything and everything allowed under state law. Interestingly, it excludes one potential option: property tax relief.
It’s self-evident the ballot’s broad language was crafted to give city officials the greatest amount of flexibility in spending options, and in doing so, giving taxpayers no insight into how the funds will actually be spent. It essentially amounts to a blank check. Alternatively, the council could have made their intentions more transparent by dedicating the funds to one or two additional uses and shortening the sunset term.
Regardless of the proposal, voters will have a choice at the ballot box whether to keep the tax or end it as planned. But if council wants to provide an alternative to ending the tax, they need to be clear on their intentions. After all, they are asking residents to voluntarily forgo a potential property tax break.
City officials argue their ballot proposal contains a sunset, which would allow taxpayers to vet the repurposed tax down the road, just as they are today. However, the proposed sunset is twenty-five years, which is effectively not a sunset.
There is no way city officials can predict what the needs of the community will be in ten years, let alone two and a half decades from now. It makes little sense that today’s politicians would handcuff taxpayers that long.
If public accountability is truly their objective, then a more reasonable sunset of five to ten years seems appropriate.
The proposed ballot language is severely disappointing. In addition to revisiting the policy, city officials owe taxpayers more than a vague, all-inclusive spending spree (that purposely excludes tax relief) with a measly twenty-five year “sunset.”
If there are needs in the city – such as roadway and park improvements – then so be it. But if the needs are so dire, then it shouldn’t be difficult for council to outline those specifically in their “ask” to residents.