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Forums over; tax goes to vote Tuesday

5/10/2013

By RANDY GONZALES

By RANDY GONZALES

rgonzales@dailynews.net

After the last of six public forums finished Thursday night at the American Legion, Ellis County Administrator Greg Sund sounded a familiar refrain.

"I sure wish we would have attracted more people to it," he said of Thursday's intimate gathering of a half-dozen audience members. "We have really tried to put together a quality presentation, give out as much information as we can."

All that's left is to vote in Tuesday's special election, but Sund noted voting already had begun.

"We encourage people to go vote," he said. "I think so far we're close to 500 votes already (in advance voting)."

On the ballot, voters will decide whether to approve a 0.5-percent county sales tax for construction of a new EMS/rural fire building, as well as expansion and renovation to the county jail, Law Enforcement Center and courthouse.

With interest added, the project would cost approximately $14.3 million. The sales tax would sunset after five years, or when the project is paid off, whichever comes sooner.

One member of the audience Thursday said she got the impression the county was giving voters an ultimatum: Vote for the sales tax, or there will have to be an increase in property tax to pay for the project.

"If it came across as an ultimatum, nobody intended that," said Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees. "The reality is just to say this is how we can fund a project at the county level.

"Right now, we have two options: property tax or sales tax. That's how we can fund it. These are projects that need to be done. We studied and looked at it, tried to fix it."

Darrell Schmeidler, Hays, was concerned about government spending.

"It seems like the more we get, the more we spend," Schmeidler said. "Why can't we save some money somewhere?

"As a taxpayer, there comes a point in time where you just can't keep giving and giving. The bucket, it's empty sometimes."

Schmeidler admitted the project is worthwhile.

"Like I said, do we need this? I'm not opposed to it at all," he said. "I'm just saying there comes a point in time where we have to do something about these budgets."

Drees said county commissioners keep the budget as tight as possible; that's why there aren't savings built up for a project such as this one.

"They have not wanted to increase property tax to create a surplus of funding," Drees said. "We've been taxing just what's needed, and not shorting ourselves through the years.

"We're just at a point where we've done everything we can do."

The county keeps, on average, 16 prisoners in other counties' jails each day, due to lack of space in the current 30-bed facility. That cost the county approximately $200,000 last year. Adding to the county jail to make it approximately 75 beds would save the county that money. Sund said the cost of adding new employees to the jail staff still would be less than the current cost of transporting prisoners.

Sund added that with approval of the project, the county would be able to sell three buildings it owns: the EMS building, the rural fire building and the Tholen building, where documents are stored. Additionally, the county no longer would need to pay rent for other buildings used for space needs. That would be a savings of $27,600 per year.

In the end, it's up to the voters, said Ellis County Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst.

"I personally feel, by talking to all the people I've talked to in the county, there's a lot of very positive support for Tuesday," Haselhorst said. "I really feel Tuesday our sales tax will pass."