Douglas commissioners to put sales tax hike on ballot

Open space preservation advocates will find out in November if Douglas County voters are willing to pay an extra quarter-cent in sales tax to support their cause.

The county commission decided last week to put the tax hike, which would raise Douglas County's sales tax to 6.75 percent, on the ballot. The levy is one of three fund-raising options that had been suggested to pay for keeping undeveloped land open.

After listening to Jim Kitchens, whose polling group found that 59 percent of 400 voters surveyed earlier in the year would support the tax, the commissioners approved the ballot question with little discussion.

The commissioners had questions about the poll's methodology, but Kitchens assured them it included a valid cross-section of Douglas County voters, and even with the poll's 4.9 percent margin of error, it shows strong support for the tax.

"These are very high poll numbers for a lot of people we see," said Kitchens.

The decision to put the question to voters was cheered by about two dozen people, including several who have been involved with the semi-private coalition that commissioned the Kitchens poll. The coalition includes ranchers, business people and residents, and its leader, Steve Lewis, urged the commission to OK the ballot question.

"We believe it's the most publicly palatable and politically smart option," he said.

The other options were a real estate transfer tax and a property tax hike. Some commissioners had hoped a six-member citizen committee would be created to write pro and con arguments for all three options before they decided which to send to voters.

Only six people responded - four pro, two con. By law, three for each viewpoint are required, so the arguments will be written by District Attorney Scott Doyle and Clerk-Treasurer Barbara Reed.

Doyle said the prospective committee members and residents can still submit comments on the ballot arguments. The county commissioners said they will solicit comments as the election approaches.

The coalition has estimated that a quarter-cent sales tax hike could generate $1 million a year. Over 30 years, it could make up a third of $90 million needed to preserve 30,000 acres of agricultural land, according to preliminary figures the coalition has provided. The group says the rest of the money could come from federal grants and private donations.

The ballot question decision followed months of discussions, both by county government and conservation groups. Lewis said the coalition can now focus on a campaign that will stress the costs and benefits of a sales tax hike for open space.

"It's on everybody's mind," he said. "The people are ready for this."


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