Sales tax decision to be made Tuesday
By RANDY GONZALES
Son of the late Evelyn Hendrickson
The Ellis County Courthouse is 71 years old. The county jail is 37 years old.
The county's EMS building in Hays has been in use for 23 years. The county's rural fire building in Hays has been in its current location for at least the last 18 years.
County leaders have said changes need to be made, and voters will go to the polls Tuesday in a special election.
On the ballot is a .5-percent county sales tax for construction of an EMS/rural fire building, as well as expansion and renovation to the county jail, Law Enforcement Center and courthouse.
The EMS/rural fire building would cost $3.8 million, while the courthouse and jail would be $8.5 million. With interest, total cost of the project is estimated at $14.3 million. The tax would sunset after five years or when the project is paid off.
County leaders have said there are two ways to pay for the project, either through sales tax or property tax. At public forums, audience members have said it feels like an ultimatum.
"It's never been meant to be presented as an ultimatum," said Ellis County Commission Chairman Dean Haselhorst. "But we only have two funding sources. One is a sales tax, and one is a property tax."
Safety and security is a major selling point for the sales tax at the courthouse and jail.
"It's something that's needed," said Ed Harbin, Ellis County Sheriff for the last 16 years. "We've used everything we have for as long as we could, made the best of everything. It's time to improve it."
There have been two incidents in recent weeks at the courthouse. The latest involved a defendant who attempted to flee the courtroom and was subdued in the hallway.
"The remodeling of the courthouse will allow the sheriff's department to bring people over directly from the jail completely separate from the general population," said District Judge Glenn Braun. "Things have changed, and the courthouse is the one thing that hasn't.
"If we don't make the necessary changes, I think as a community, and as a county, we're going to live to regret it."
Ellis County Emergency Medical Services Director Kerry McCue said his department has outgrown the current building at 1009 Cody.
"We're trying to get a facility that meets our department's needs," McCue said. "There's been a group of citizens on a space needs committee that have looked at our needs for three years, and have come up with a building that we believe will meet our needs, not only now, but hopefully for the next 25 to 30 years."
Ellis County Rural Fire Director Dick Klaus said his engines for Company 5 are in a tight space at 1208 Cedar.
"The problem we have with one of the bays is we have three trucks lined up to go out one door," Klaus said. "If the front truck doesn't start or something, we're talking about a five- to 10-minute delay to respond."
Ellis County, thanks in part to oil valuation in the county, is one of 21 counties in the state without a county sales tax. There are 105 counties in Kansas.
With an added half-cent, the sales tax rate in Hays would be 8.55 percent. Ellis' sales tax rate would rise to 8.8 percent, Victoria's would be 7.8 percent, and Schoenchen, 6.8 percent.
Those tax rates are based on the state's current sales tax rate of 6.3 percent; it could drop to 5.7 percent depending on what is decided in the Legislature.
Ellis and Schoenchen have decided to keep their shares of potential tax revenue, while Victoria would decide after the election. Hays has agreed to give its share to the county.
Haselhorst asked voters to understand this is a need when they go to the polls.
"We just ask for your support Tuesday," he said, "and please go vote yes."