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  • Last modified 3 days ago (April 8, 2021)

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Taxing our patriotism

Twenty years ago, Marion voters approved adding three-quarters of a cent to every purchase they made in town to pay for economic development.

Whether that investment paid off or was frittered away is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that the debt the sales tax paid for should be paid off sometime this fall.

Once the city retires the debt, what’s to become of the sales tax that originally was adopted to pay for it?

Legally — according to the city attorney, as relayed Monday by the city administrator — the tax doesn’t need to be renewed to remain in force.

A quick and largely uneducated reading of state law would seem to agree. Legally, the situation isn’t the same as it was with Marion County’s jail tax, which was allowed to expire after jail bonds were paid off. But ethically and morally, perhaps it should be.

Although experts classify sales taxes as perhaps the cruelest of taxes, hitting less affluent taxpayers the hardest, most people are so oblivious to them that they actually prefer them to most other forms of taxation.

It’s not as if Marion is charging a fortune for its sales tax. The rate is only three-quarters of a cent. Legally, it could charge up to four cents on each dollar of sales. And almost everyone who drives Marion’s pothole infested streets or worries about its less than reliable utilities knows there’s plenty of need and not always enough tax revenue to pay to fix what’s broken.

The question is, doesn’t the city owe it to itself — and its taxpayers — to have a conversation about where the extra revenue will be going each year rather than simply letting it spill into the general fund once it no longer is needed to pay off debt?

Special taxes should target special purposes, not merely provide more slush for assorted funds that easily can be frittered away on perhaps less-needed items.

Do we have faith in Marion’s leadership that this won’t happen? The city council seems to have faith in the community’s administrative staff that it somehow will be able to use a blank check approved Monday for electricity rate surcharges, which the staff hopes to reduce to less than a recommended 1 cent per kilowatt-hour.

But there’s another side to any story. Protestations at the meeting that the city would in no way profit from that surcharge ignored how much money the city typically makes on electricity sales. This includes the fact that even residential customers, who don’t pay regular sales tax on electricity, have to pay the three-quarter-cent tax on it. So there is a profit mechanism despite public protestations.

Government always seems to give itself advantages. Marion now will begin charging larger fees to pay utility and other bills with credit or debit cards. In Kansas, merchants can’t do that. Even though they face the same overhead costs that cut into payments received by card, they cannot pass those along. Government, by act of the legislature, can.

We don’t mean to demean the character of any people involved, but it’s awfully hard to accept claims that anyone in government will always look out for the best interests of the people. That is, after all, why we have elected officials instead of just appointed ones.

Open discussion on how much money the city actually makes on utilities, rather than on how much it thinks it can get away with charging, would be welcome. So, too, would discussions on what projects come after the 20 years of paying off economic development bonds — and of whether the special sales tax actually paid off the bonds long ago.

It may offend those in power, but the notion that government knows best and deserves blank-check authorization is one of the least patriotic sentiments around. What we really need is full and complete dialogue — telling the whole story, not just the part that makes things sound the way people want them to sound.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified April 8, 2021

 

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