Claremore Daily Progress

May 13, 2013

One-Cent Sales Tax Renewal

Bailey Dabney


“Sir, you spend money like a drunken sailor,” County Commissioner Kirt Thacker said to County Commissioner Mike Helm in a Board of County Commissioners meeting this past October. “It is time that we either get this under control or public trust will forever be diminished at least in Rogers County.”
It is actually a little too late for public trust where liberal government spending is concerned.
In Helm’s defense, he has only spent money that was legally available to him. Commissioner Helm could not actually spend like a drunken sailor if he did not have access to so much taxpayer money. 
That brings us to the subject of the upcoming vote for an extension of the temporary one-cent sales tax that goes to building county roads.
This tax has been temporary for 25 years. When it was first proposed, the County Commissioners at the time insisted it would only be necessary for a period of five years. 
After five years, they promised, we would be caught up on paving dirt roads and our existing revenue streams would cover maintenance and repairs to all county roads handsomely. Despite their promises, Rogers County voters have been asked and have renewed that tax, in its entirety, four more times. Shouldn’t we be able to scale it back a little bit now that all of the roads are paved? 
During that twenty-five years this county had one of the highest growth rates in the country, which means the taxes collected each year from that same one penny have grown appreciably. 
Over bacon-cheeseburgers at the Hammett House, I asked Thacker if an analysis had been done to determine exactly how much money was needed to maintain the quality of roads we enjoy in Rogers County today. 
He responded that while such an analysis had not been done, he felt sure that if it were done, it would confirm the need for the whole penny - if not more. While I believe Thacker could put the money to good use, and that his intentions are good, I also believe taxpayers are owed that analysis before forking over $6 million dollars per year for five more years. President Ronald Reagan famously said “trust, but verify.”
I trust people on both sides of this argument, but the NEED for exactly this much money must be verified by some sort of analysis. Give us something to go on.
Our county has one of the highest combined sales tax rates in the region even though the City of Claremore’s portion of the combined state and local rates is one of the lowest.
In lieu of analysis, the committee FOR the tax has generated over-the-top rhetoric. “Does Claremore Want a War?” was the headline in the Oologah Lake Leader; on the ads they show pictures of paved roads becoming dirt roads if this tax is not passed. Any time publicity is that misleading, you have to wonder.
We obviously need to fund county roads. We also need to act conservatively and with prudent frugality, and if at all possible do it while returning a portion of that penny to the shoppers of Rogers County. We don’t know for certain how much the county needs. And so far, they haven’t produced or publicized any documents that support the abject need for a full penny renewal.
The Chamber of Commerce recently urged a “NO” vote. Not because they believe the county does not need money to fix roads, but because they believe a penny is too much. A “NO” vote would force the county commissioners to actually determine exactly how much is necessary and call for a vote on THAT number instead of giving them blanket authority to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment they don’t use, or on replacements for virtually brand new heavy machinery. 
Conservatives believe that taxes are appropriate only for the amount necessary to do the people’s work: nothing more, nothing less. This county elected two of the three commissioners on the profession of their conservative values. All three support the tax renewal. I would expect professed conservatives to make a significant effort to tighten their belts to return some tax benefit to their constituents if at all possible.
Private employers have had to shave expenses since the economic downturn. We have all made efforts to do more with less. Should we not expect our local governments to do the same? From 2006 to 2010, the dollars paid in salary to government employees in Rogers County increased by 23 percent, while the private sector in Rogers County only increased by 14 percent. Sounds like Washington, right?
This county approved the extension of a sales tax to fund a beautiful new courthouse. We also voted for a sales tax to meet our legal obligations from a massive court case we lost. In addition, this county will certainly support some form of a tax to maintain our county roads. However, this tax seems too large right now. It has proven to be so excessive that a county commissioner, in the words of another, can “spend like drunken sailor.” 
This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. If you vote NO you will force them to come back with a quantified need, a figure that shows they know it is YOUR money:  that they respect your work ethic and your values, and that they share those conservative Oklahoma values. 
Bailey Dabney is publisher of the Claremore Daily Progress.