Tuesday marked a big day for Midland taxpayers – possibly.
Despite having the funds for quite some time, Midland City Council members only now voted unanimously to pay off the construction debt of the Scharbauer Sports Complex, possibly signaling the end of a quarter-cent sales tax (known as the “4B”) in Midland.
An election on May 6, however, could extend the life of the 4B for another fifteen years.
The tax, which was established in 1999 to fund the construction of the Scharbauer Sports Complex, would dedicate roughly $178 million to “quality of life” improvements in Midland if extendeded. According to Midland Mayor Jerry Morales, this includes approximately $77.5 million for the expansion, renovation, and construction of new and existing parks and sports fields, with the remainder going towards the arts, limited road and drainage improvements, and the funding of the Scharbauer Sports Complex’s maintenance and operations costs ($2-4 million annually).
If it fails, the 4B tax would sunset as originally intended and Midland’s sales tax would decrease.
A panel hosted by Midland County Republican Women (MCRW) on April 12 gave residents a chance to learn more about the election, hear positions for and against the tax extension, and ask questions. On the panel was Mayor Morales speaking “for” the 4B, and former Midland Mayor Buddy Sipes speaking “against”.
Neither panelist questioned the benefits that parks and athletic facilities provide to a community; however, their competing views on the 4B revolved around conflicting definitions of “good governance.”
Claiming that Midland is falling behind other cities in regards to recreational parks and facilities, Morales explained that by building and expanding parks, families wouldn’t need to travel out of town for sports tournaments like they do today. “Pecos, Big Spring, Hobbs … they’re all ahead of the game,” he said. By sticking with a “pay-as-you-go” payment structure and utilizing sales tax instead of property taxes, Morales believes that continuing the 4B for 15 years is good governance.
Sipes had a different opinion: “This looks like a slush fund to me,” he said. “It isn’t transparent and it lacks accountability,” Sipes said, referring to both the ballot language and the 4B board, which consists of unelected members who recommend 4B projects. Instead of passing a tax that, according to the ballot language, could be used on a number of different projects, he noted that it would be more transparent and better governance to take individual projects to the community, rather than passing a 15-year tax, and to allow taxpayers to decide what they want – not an unelected board.
During the discussion, the Scharbauer Sports Complex was used as an example of how 4B funds could be utilized both responsibly and irresponsibly.
With the complex hosting numerous groups and activities such as Midland ISD, the Midland RockHounds, the Midland-Odessa Sockers, two semi-professional football teams, concerts, and more, the added benefit to the community is undebatable.
Yet despite the construction costs having a “sunset,” taxpayers will likely be footing the bill for these benefits indefinitely.
The complex isn’t self-sustaining and currently requires $2-4 million annually in tax dollars for operations and upkeep – a cost that Midland voters likely didn’t anticipate when voting for the 4B in 1999. If the 4B extension fails this May, council members are threatening to increase property taxes in order to offset the additional costs of the complex.
If the 4B passes, the city estimates the annual upkeep of new, expanded parks would amount to at least $850,000, which doesn’t include the maintenance and operations costs of the sports complex.
If history is any indication, the question voters should ask themselves on May 6 is whether they’re willing to pay for the benefits of new parks and sports facilities for much longer than 15 years. And for many residents, that decision isn’t easy.
Early voting for the 4B election begins April 24th. Voting times and locations can be found on the Midland County Elections website at www.co.midland.tx.us.