By Traci Chapman
Canadian County voters on Feb. 10 will be asked to keep the county’s children’s justice center operational – by approving a 14 percent reallocation of the sales tax dedicated to it since 1996 to “capital needs of the county.”
Commissioners Jack Stewart, left, and David Anderson discuss a reallocation of 14 percent of the .35 of one cent dedicated to the Gary E. Miller Canadian County Children’s Justice Center. (Photo/Traci Chapman)
The election was formally approved Monday, through a two-commissioner majority vote. Commissioners David Anderson and Jack Stewart approved a resolution and call for election, while District 1 Commissioner Phil Carson voted against it. Although Carson did not approve the issue, as chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, he was compelled to sign the documents because the measure passed by majority vote.
Commissioners serve as board chairman on a rotating basis.
The election came a little more than a month after an Oct. 31 Attorney General’s Opinion – sought by commissioners – stated the .35 of one cent sales tax used to build and operate the Gary E. Miller Canadian County Children’s Justice Center since it was approved by voters in 1996 was limited in how it could be used. In the opinion, Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Assistant AG Richard Olderbak cited wording in the original 1996 ballot, as well as their inability to determine voters’ intentions, when the matter was decided 18 years ago.
Commissioners echoed that question during a round of public meetings held in the wake of their receipt of the AG’s opinion. Although some residents have in those public meetings told commissioners they always intended to use the sales tax to fund both construction and operations at the center, Anderson said it was his responsibility as a commissioner to consider “all of the needs of the county, not just the juvenile center.”
Anderson and Stewart voted to set the election after meeting more than seven hours last week on the issue. After first discussing the matter during their regular Dec. 1 meeting, they recessed and reconvened twice – on Dec. 2 and Dec. 4 – to come to a resolution. The sessions were necessary as the clock was ticking on a deadline of Dec. 10 to file ballot language with the Canadian County Election Board. The pair settled Feb. 4 on the language formally drafted by Assistant District Attorney Paul Hesse and approved Monday to be considered by voters in February.
Carson suggested drafting a ballot that would give voters the choice to either simply amend language concerning the use of sales tax to include operations or divert some of the tax for capital improvements. Hesse discouraged that move, saying it would cause voters confusion. The commissioner also proposed that a portion of both sales tax currently held in reserves – anticipated by commissioners to reach about $7.2 million by the time residents vote on the matter in February – and future tax collections be split. Carson suggested 50 percent of the roughly $7.2 million be diverted to capital improvements, with another 50 percent of “unexpended funds that exist at the end of each fiscal year” also allocated to those improvements.
Anderson countered with a proposal which would also split the existing funds 50/50 between capital improvement fund and the children’s justice center, but that 80 percent of all unexpended sales tax, not to exceed 20 percent of the total collected in any one year, should be allocated to capital improvements, with 20 percent dedicated to the children’s justice center.
When Carson refused to vote in favor of the proposal, Anderson reverted to the 86/14 percent split, which he first proposed Dec. 1.
What that translates to for the children’s justice center is a decrease in funds immediately available for reserves, emergencies and carryover. For example, if the county collected $6 million in sales tax during the fiscal year and only utilized $4 million of that tax for its operations, $2 million would be split – with $280,000 of it going to county capital improvements and $1.72 million available to the children’s justice center for reserves, carryover and the like.
Of $7.2 million anticipated to be held in sales tax accounts by mid-February, $1.008 million would go to commissioners’ for capital improvement use, and $6.192 million would remain in children’s justice center coffers, if Anderson’s proposal is approved by voters.
Carson was not alone in his opposition to the resolution approved by Anderson and Stewart. Children’s justice center co-director Bill Alexander said he felt including the component of splitting the tax on a ballot necessary to keep the center open was unfair to voters, particularly in light of a 2011 election where voters rejected diversion of part of that tax to fund a county jail.
“I think there’s a real problem, it’s not fair to voters – you’re coercing the voters,” Alexander said. “You’re diverting taxes on something they voted ‘no’ on three years ago, and they have to vote for it to keep the center open.
“People want to save the children’s justice center but they don’t want diversion,” he said.
“I’m going to do what’s right for this county, and I’m going to work to convince the public that this is the right thing for the county,” Anderson said.