Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sales tax was not best plan for jail

Guest opinion by Tom Bowman

Tom Bowman is one of three members of the Blaine County Commission. He lives in Hailey.

I would like to respond to Bob Kaplan's thoughtful Sept. 15 opinion on the county Local Option Tax (LOT) alternative that could fund both a new public safety facility and provide property tax relief. I agree with him that it is a great concept but would like to shed light on why the option was rejected as a ballot question for this November. My response has two components, technical and political.

The enabling legislation states that the LOT can be used to expand detention facilities and retire existing debt. It does not explicitly allow for the building of a new facility nor the ancillary functions of sheriff's administrative offices and in our case a location for a consolidated 911 dispatch center. Nor does it allow for new debt. Perhaps it could be argued that these functions are implicitly allowed but with the scrutiny the county receives over process, I believed the risk of stretching the legislative intent was too much to assume. The three Idaho counties that have successfully incorporated this option were not challenged in court, so there is no judicial precedent for guidance in this matter. In addition, counties do not have the option in the statute to exempt certain classes of sales like groceries and children's' clothes, as Mr. Kaplan suggests. Great idea though. We hope to work the state Legislature this session to clear up the intent of the code and provide for more local flexibility.

Secondly, I believe that the timing of this sales tax ballot question would not have been worse. We will see a non-binding, after-the-fact advisory question in regards to the new 1 percent sales tax scheme that the governor just passed in the August special legislative session, reminding all of us in the voting booth that our base sales tax just went up 20 percent. In addition, Proposition 1 will ask for another 1 cent increase to help fund teacher's salaries throughout the state that if successful would bring base sales tax up to 7 percent. I also polled key merchants in the valley and I did not find any support for this regressive option tax at this time. Indeed, one person told me he believed that our property tax burden is much lower than elsewhere in the state and other national localities and preferred to see a bond election.

I trust in light of this additional information, Mr. Kaplan reconsiders his opinion and perhaps assists us down a successful campaign path in the future. The county commissioners are in the process of studying whether to place a bond election on a February ballot. As Mr. Kaplan points out, what seems to be undisputed is the need to replace our jail facility and our responsibility as a society to provide for it. If anyone would like to see our existing facility, please call me at 788-5500 to arrange your tour.

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