Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

TOP STORY>> Sales tax vote seen as crucial in Cabot

IN SHORT: Balloting would not only fund sewer plant but also other improvement projects.

By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

It’s official. Cabot voters will get to decide Sept. 13 if they want to pay for a new sewer treatment plant with a rate increase or with an existing one-cent sales tax.

At the same time, voters will decide if they want to use the existing tax to pay for other projects in the city – a community center, railroad overpass, street improvements and an animal shelter.

Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh, who opposes extending the sales tax to pay for the projects and held the power to veto the election ordinance the council passed last week, decided over the weekend he would not use that power.

“While it’s against what I believe, I thought it best to let it move forward,” Stumbaugh said Tuesday.

Besides, he said, he had to be realistic. There was no guarantee that the council didn’t have the six votes needed to override a veto.

Although Alderman David Polantz favors ending the tax because that was the promise made to city voters in 1999 when the tax was passed, and he voted against it last week, Stumbaugh pointed out that Polantz voted to allow the ordinance to be passed in one night instead of three nights and he voted for the emergency clause that would make it take effect immediately.

Therefore, it is conceivable that Polantz might have voted with the five who supported the ordinance to override a veto.

Stumbaugh agrees with Polantz, Jerry Stephens and Patrick Hutton, the three council members who voted against the ordinance, that the sales tax should sunset after the water bonds it supports are paid off and that sewer customers should pay for improvements to the system, not Cabot shoppers.

The sewer treatment plant has not worked properly since it was built, he said. And the city council should have taken steps to correct its problems years ago.

The council could have raised rates last year to begin the process of building a new plant but wouldn’t do it, he said.

And while they wait, the cost of materials keeps going up. Also, the city will be fined (probably less than $10,000) for failing to bring the existing plant into compliance with state standards.

“I will not be a part of those who let this thing continue on and on and cost the taxpayers thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars,” he said. “Since they can’t make a decision, I decided it was best to let the people make the decision.”

Alderman Eddie Cook, who along with Alderman Odis Waymack sponsored the ordinance calling for the election, said he intends to make the rounds of local civic organizations to build support for continuing the sales tax to pay for the sewer plant and other projects.

“You can’t argue with common sense,” Cook said. “You’re going to save $7.4 million in interest alone [compared to paying for the new plant with a rate increase]. It’s going to pay off so much earlier.”

Besides, he said, with a sales tax more people will help pay off the debt.
“We’re going to be asking the 70,000 people who live in a 30-mile radius to help pay for our facilities,” Cook said.

“And I hope everyone would realize that these projects we’ve tacked on will not add any significant time to the payoff of the loan,” he said.

Voters will be asked to approve about $28 million in debt to be supported by the existing one-cent tax: $7 million to pay off the existing bonds for improvement to the city’s water system which are supported by the tax; $16.5 million for the sewer treatment plant and repairs to the collection system; $800,000 for the railroad overpass; $1.5 million to build the community center that came in over budget; $1.8 million for street improvements and $200,000 to build at one time an animal shelter that was supposed to be built in stages.

Last month, Cabot voters turned down a millage increase that would have added about $20 to the property tax on a $100,000 home to pay for the overpass and community center.
Before that election, the Cabot School Board passed a resolution in support of the city’s efforts to raise money for those projects since both would benefit the school district.

The school’s swimming team will use the community center and the overpass would keep almost 30 buses a day from having to cross the tracks. The board has not yet spoken about support for continuing the sales tax.

But before the mayor had decided to not exercise his veto power, the new Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission was already making plans to inform voters about the good and bad points of both possible sources of paying for a new sewer plant.

“Conceptually, we’re going to put together a fact sheet of the pros and cons of the sales tax versus the rate increase, said Bill Cypert, one of the three members of the commission who also served for about six months as a member of its predecessor, the Cabot Public Utilities Commission.

The former commission went before the city council twice with ordinances calling for an election to continue the sales tax to pay for the plant. But it didn’t pass until Cook and Waymack added the additional projects.

Don Keesee, who along with Cypert and J.M. Park served on the first commission, said during a recent meeting that it should be clear to the public where they stand on paying for the plant with the sales tax, but Cypert said Tuesday the commission will try to remain non-political.

The first draft of the fact sheet should be ready for the commission to go over by the Thursday commission meeting, Cypert said.

Patti Patrick, a member of the city’s park commission which supports extending the sales tax to help build the community center, said the commission waited to see whether Stumbaugh would veto the ordinance.

Since he didn’t, the commission will have to get to work telling voters what it’s all about.

“The main thing now is to get out there and let the voters know what they’re voting on,” Patrick said.