Our Opinion: Vote reveals credibility problem in city government

News Tribune editorial

In the end, the credibility of Jefferson City government proved the greatest obstacle to a sales tax proposal for the Fire Department.

Proposition 2 on Tuesday’s ballot failed with 57.6 percent of voters rejecting the issue — 5,187 votes opposed and 3,816 votes in favor. The proposal would have enacted a 15-year, quarter-cent sales tax for the fire department and eliminated a 9.61-cent property tax for the Fireman’s Pension Fund.

The campaign was not without missteps.

A brochure touting a 17 percent decrease in the property tax for city residents incorrectly implied city residents would see that percentage of savings on their overall tax bill.

Correct language would have specified a 17 percent decrease in city property taxes, which are a fraction of total property taxes paid by residents of Cole County. The overall savings was calculated at 1.7 percent — a significant difference.

We advise campaign organizers for future ballot issues to avoid promises, language and implications that are blatantly incorrect or could be construed as false.

The campaign hiccup contributed to a prevailing sentiment that voters were being asked to pick up a ball that was dropped by their elected city representatives.

We heard and read sentiments from our readers that although they supported the firefighters, they didn’t trust the city’s financing priorities and decisions.

Readers said they were reluctant to enact another dedicated funding stream, similar to the parks department’s sales tax.

In addition, readers said they were fearful the fire tax would free other revenues city officials would misdirect.

Proponents of the tax tried repeatedly to refute that perception — an effort undercut in the eleventh hour by a contradictory statement in an e-mail sent to city employees by City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus.

He wrote: “The money which is presently spent on these items (for firefighters) will be available for increased funding for all general fund purposes.”

The e-mail prompted at least one council member to call for the dismissal of Nickolaus, which will be the topic of a special City Council meeting Friday.

Tuesday’s election revealed city government has a credibility problem. Too many residents don’t trust their elected representatives to set proper priorities and make good decisions regarding tax dollars.

Rebuilding credibility will be a process — a process that must begin with leadership.

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