Leader Blues

Monday, August 06, 2007

TOP STORY >>Funding parks is priority for city

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville residents and visitors to the city will see the price of their favorite fast-food combo go up starting in October as the city council approved a new 2-cent prepared- food tax by an 8-2 vote Thursday night.

Half of the tax, about $275,000, will go to the parks and recreation department, much more than what the city’s advertising and promotion commission originally recommended. Less will go for advertising than the commission had originally suggested.

The new tax covers all forms of food prepared “on site” at restaurants, cafes, cafeterias, grocery and department stores, and even ball park concession stands, unless the organization is classified by the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit group.
Aldermen Terry Sansing and Kevin McCleary voted no on the tax issue.

“It’s not that I’m against what this tax will do for the city, but my personal philosophy is that any tax needs to be voted on by the people,” Sansing said.

State law gives cities the option to enact the tax through council action or by electoral vote — the council chose to make the decision itself.

“Lots of cities in the state have this tax,” said Alderman Marshall Smith, who also chairs the advertising and promotion commission, “and I think only one had the people vote on it.”

Finance Director Paul Mush-rush said by starting the tax Oct. 1, it starts with the new quarter. “That gives us time to get our paperwork and permits in order and by starting at the beginning of the quarter it will be easier to make revenue projections and calculations,” he said.

The advertising and promotion commission, which wrestled with the idea of the tax for about nine months before proposing it to the council last month, originally planned to put the bulk — about $275,000 of the $551,000 that the tax would bring in — into a promotion fund to be used for logos, slogans, print advertising and television commercials promoting the city.
Then $163,000 was slated for the parks and recreation department, about $40,000 in administrative and staffing costs, and the rest divided between facilities, programs and activities like the military museum, Reed’s Bridge Battlefield, Wing Ding festival and July 4th Patriotic Spectacular, designed to bring visitors to the city.

But those amounts will change as aldermen made it clear the city’s top draw was its parks, which include ball fields and the Splash Zone aquatic park and that was where the majority of the money needed to go.

Aldermen amended the original version of the ordinance, which had no set amounts of money go into any particular fund or activity, to where 50 percent of whatever is collected would go to the parks and recreation department.

That means those funds would be initially put into the city’s general fund and then distributed to the parks department for specific purposes and projects by the city council.

The advertising and promotion commission would have the authority over the remaining funds generated by the tax and would use that amount to help out the museum and other facilities and projects and promote the city. The commission will review its proposed budget for the tax at its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at city hall.

Before approving the tax, a few aldermen expressed concern with aspects of the tax proposal.

“I have problems with any tax,” said Alderman Gary Fletcher. “And I have a great problem with how this money is going to be spent.

“If you are going to promote Jacksonville, tell me, tell all of us, the two or three things that will bring people to Jacksonville. I’d like to see us put money into the city first,” he said.

Fletcher suggested working on Main Street landscaping first.

He said he didn’t the ads to be better than what Jacksonville has to offer. “I don’t want the movie trailers to be the best part,” he explained.

Fletcher also thought collecting and paying the tax, while not a problem for most chain restaurants, might be a burden to smaller businesses. “We need to make it as easy as possible,” he said.

Alderman Bob Stroud had a slightly different view, wanting the ordinance to have stronger penalties for those businesses not paying the tax. The ordinance states that a business not paying the tax can be charged with a misdemeanor. Stroud wanted that changed to a felony, but City Attorney Robert Bamburg said state law would not allow that.

In other council business:

The council also accepted a $75,758 construction bid from T.I.M. Construction to build sidewalks and handicap-accessible ramps in the Sunnyside area.

Police Chief Robert Baker told the council that his department received a $29,600 federal grant that will be used to buy equipment needed for the department’s DARE program for area schools and its criminal investigation division.