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THE TOP 10 REASONS: I'm voting 'NO' on Prop. 1, Columbia's "public safety" tax


COLUMBIA, Mo 10/30/14 (Op Ed) -- If Proposition 1 passes on November 4, homeowners in Columbia will pay higher property taxes and renters will pay higher rents.  

When fully implemented, the tax will cost about $6 million every year.   The money is supposed to provide additional funding for the Columbia police and fire departments.

So, what's wrong with that?

1. City government already has money it can apply to public safety.   They simply have their priorities wrong.

I invoked the Sunshine law to learn how much existing revenue is available, yet spent on less vital services.  The $84 million General Fund budget for 2015 includes $24,348,000 (29%) earmarked by law for other uses, leaving $59,683,000 (71%) the City Council can spend as they choose.  

The police get $21,182,000; the fire department, $17,182,000.   That leaves $21,319,000 for less vital services.  

With local taxes already high enough for any reasonable person, public safety should get what it needs from taxes we already pay.   Putting this proposition on the ballot proves our city government does not give our police and firefighters the support they deserve.   If they did, they would spend what they already have on what's most important and instead, put non-vital and "fluff" items on the ballot. 

2.   They've played this shell game before.  

Every few years, local governments ask for additional public safety taxes (think 911 tax and threats a few years ago to shutter a 1st Ward fire station).  They expect the typical voter to think, "Well, I better vote 'yes' for some new fire trucks.   I don't want my house to burn down."

By contrast, the people voted twice against spending millions for lavish restoration of the Daniel Boone Building. The Council waited a few years, voted to spend even more to renovate it, but without going again to the voters.    Instead, they make us vote on the fire trucks.

3. Proposition 1 has no expiration date.   Any tax measure for any purpose should have a reasonable sunset provision such as five or ten years for voter review.

4.  An independent source should thoroughly review the public safety budget.   Is it cost-effective?   Do our local police really need armored vehicles?

5. Whenever the city or county want more taxes, somebody will always say we need this because the population is growing.  This is a non sequitur -- an illogical connection.   By this pseudo-reasoning, if Columbia grew as large as St. Louis, taxes would have to go up to 100%.

6. "It's only a small tax increase".   We hear this every time: they nickel and dime you to death.

7.   Don't think higher property taxes won't effect you if you're a renter; it comes out of your rent.

8.   It won't stop here.   If City Hall wins -- or even if they lose -- they will attack again with more tax hike attempts in the future.

9.  The burden of proof for any tax proposition always rests upon the advocates, never the skeptics.   When in doubt, vote "NO" -- especially when it will cost millions of dollars with no expiration date.

And finally, my tenth reason for voting NO on Prop. 1: 

10.   Columbia needs new leaders more than we need new taxes.


William Samuels is a Columbia-based attorney, and former visiting law professor in Russia with the Yale affiliated Civic Education Project.    A lawsuit he brought against the City of Columbia forced city leaders to obey a law that prohibits public agencies from using tax money to promote tax issues.

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