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story.lead_photo.caption An overcast sky looms over the Veteran's Plaza in front of the Jefferson City Police Department on July 20, 2020. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Jefferson City Council members still have decisions to make about a proposed public safety sales tax.

Members met Monday night to discuss some of the questions they had about the tax.

They are considering a one-fourth percent sales tax dedicated to public safety, namely Jefferson City Police and Fire departments. It would generated an estimated $2,838,345 annually.

The questions on the table are when it might appear on the ballot for voter approval, whether it would have a sunset period and more exact examples of the use for the funds.

Ballot time

The proposal originally appeared before the council with an intent to place the tax on the August ballot. However, some council members voiced concern about running it on the same ballot as the city's half-cent sales tax.

Ward 3's Erin Wiseman, Ward 4's Carlos Graham and Ward 5's Jon Hensley voiced support Monday of running it on the August ballot.

Meanwhile, Ward 1's David Kemna, Ward 2's Mike Lester and Ward 4's Ron Fitzwater said they've heard concerns about it and discussed putting it on a November ballot instead.

"I would just like to caution that we potentially run the risk of losing both," Fitzwater said. "There's a lot of moving parts in our economy right now. I hope we have a plan B if that's the direction this council goes because it is not a slam dunk. I think the reasons we want to do it are very positive. I think that gains some votes. We better be very sure that is enough to get this thing across the finish line. There are comments out there, people who are concerned."

Wiseman and Graham pointed out the additional cost with adding it to the November ballot since the city does not have anything planned for the ballot.

That cost, which Graham said and City Administrator Steve Crowell confirmed, is $40,000-$50,000.

"It is going to save us money to go ahead and put it on the August ballot," Wiseman said. "There's nothing else on the November ballot, and we'd just have to pay for two elections if we do it on the November ballot. I think they should run on the same ballot anyways, but it is also a cost savings for us to put them both on the August ballot."

Kemna argued the cost may be worth it if the motion is more likely to pass on a November ballot.

"I would hate to put this on the ballot and then voters come out and vote them both down," he said. "It's hard to gauge how it's going to turn out, but that's my concern if we put them both on the August ballot."

Hensley's main argument was to get the motion in front of voters as soon as possible.

"I think both of these taxes are vitally important," he said. "I think we need to get them both before the voters as soon as possible. I don't think that there is very much value in trying to game theory our way into guessing a perfect ballot slot for these things. I think August makes sense."

As part of the discussion, Lester asked about the tax's start date. Under the current structure, it would start in January 2022.

However, he suggested looking into moving that back to April, since part of the argument in favor of the tax is that it would replace part of the county's public safety sales tax, which is set to expire in April.

Sunset

When the proposal first came before the council, it was to be a continuous tax. However, since then, several amendments came up for council consideration that would set a seven-, 15- or 20-year sunset when it would be on the ballot again for voter approval to be extended.

Crowell presented research to council members about other cities either with a public safety sales tax or one up for consideration.

Most don't have a sunset, based on that document. However, Cape Girardeau and St. Joseph have 20-year sunsets.

Council members largely supported either of those options.

Part of that conversation, Hussey said, relates to the funding's uses.

"I would go back to council member Wiseman's comments at the last meeting about her concern just with a sunset in general," he said. "I think that if the tax is dedicated with a significant portion addressing salaries and compensation, that you want a period of time to work that plan through and have it in place; as opposed to every five or six or seven years it's like you've got a campaign maybe to fund a department and fund people's jobs and be faced with if it doesn't renew. Do you have to cut staff and cut back?"

Uses

Council members have discussed several uses for the funding, including body cameras, salary and building projects.

The exact projects would not appear on the ballot. However, members wanted a clear idea of some short-term funding goals to discuss with voters.

One of the priorities council members agree on is salary for police and firefighters.

According to council documents, police officers and firefighters earn $40,753 annually, which is in the bottom half of a selection of Missouri cities.

During his presentation, Crowell also pointed out other city positions such as bus driver, 911 operator and accountant are also in the lower half to lower third of the same list.

What a pay increase would look like is hard to pin down, he said, but would have local officials working with the Fraternal Order of Police and Jefferson City Fire Fighters Local 671.

Lester said the council should emphasize salary and retention of staff.

"It is seriously deteriorating our department and we just need to step up and have better salaries," he said.

Hussey, who also supported using some of the funding for salary, also argued in favor of police body cameras.

"I do think there's a significant portion of the community that's looking at that particular piece of equipment and specifically hope that something like this can address that," he said.

Most importantly, Hussey said, council members need to be unified in these decisions before voting to police the tax motion on the ballot.

"Is there consensus around the table this evening to say that we want a significant portion to address salary and personnel cost? Do we want it to go to body cameras," he said. "I'm trying to make sure we have some conversations. My hope would be that whenever a vote is taken to put this on the ballot, it's a 10-0 vote."

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