Merriam admin recommends public vote on sales tax for new $25 million-plus community center, pool facility

Merriam staff are recommending the city issue a new 1/4 percent sales tax to replace the aging Irene B. French Community Center and existing pool with a new community and aquatics center.
Merriam staff are recommending the city issue a new 1/4 cent sales tax to replace the aging Irene B. French Community Center and existing pool with a new community and aquatics center.

The Merriam city council this month will consider authorizing a mail-in ballot vote in late summer asking residents to approve a 10-year, 1/4 cent sales tax that would fund construction of a new community and aquatic center. Consultants estimate the new facility would cost $25 million to $30 million to build.

At its meeting Monday, the council heard City Administrator Chris Engel deliver his formal recommendation that the city hold the mail-in election and pursue the construction of a new facility for the city’s parks and recreation programming instead of attempting to renovate existing facilities.

It was the culmination of months of work by city staff and the parks and recreation steering committee, which have been exploring options for the future of the city’s parks and rec facilities. Feasibility studies have suggested that making short-term fixes to the aging Irene B. French Community Center would not be cost effective. And, as Engel highlighted, the prospect of investing the estimated $16 million to $20 million needed to make the existing French center and municipal pool viable for the coming decades had a number of drawbacks.

First, the existing infrastructure is simply not set up to accommodate a number of modern uses. What’s more, it’s possible that once construction crews began renovation of the current facilities, they could find structural problems that would require even more ongoing investment in the future. Building new would eliminate the specter of such issues.

“While we have two solutions, there is one best solution, from a staff perspective,” Engel said. “There is one most appropriate solution that meets the of our folks today and into the future, that saves us money over the long haul — the long haul not being 10 years, but 20 or 30 years in terms of cost of maintenance.”

Engel again stressed that the city’s remarkably high pull factor — a measure of the amount of tax revenue a city collects that comes from non-residents — put the city in a unique position to put a sales tax in place that would have relatively little impact on residents’ pocketbooks. With car dealerships concentrated in the city along I-35, millions in sales taxes are generated from people who live outside Merriam making big-ticket purchases within the city limits. City staff estimate that the 1/4 percent sales tax in the city would cost each Merriam resident around $32 per year.

“It’s what really even provides the opportunity for us to have this conversation,” Engel said of the city’s pull factor.

On Monday, Engel presented the council with draft ballot language, and asked that they move to bring the item up for a vote at the next meeting, to be held Monday, June 26. The council voted unanimously to move the item to the June 26 agenda. No council members offered any suggested edits to the ballot language.

Should the council authorize the city to conduct the mail-in vote, ballots would be sent to every registered voter in the city August 26. Voters would have until noon on Sept. 15 to turn in their ballots.

“The opportunity doesn’t come along all that often to do big and bold things, but like the alignment of stars or moons or eclipses, they don’t last forever either,” Engel said.

The draft ballot language the city council will consider approving for the mail-in vote later this year is copied below:

Shall the City of Merriam, Kansas be authorized to: (1) issue general obligation bonds in a principal amount of not to exceed $24,000,000 to pay costs to construct certain parks and recreation capital improvements, including but not limited to construction of a new facility that will be used as a community center and aquatics center (the “New Community Center”), and to pay associated financing costs; and (2) imposed one-quarter percent (0.25%) Citywide retailers’ sales tax to commence on January 1, 2018, or as soon thereafter is permitted by law and terminate ten (10) years after its commencement, the proceeds of which shall be used to pay the costs of the New Community Center and debt service on general obligation bonds issued to finance the New Community Center; all pursuant to the provisions of K.S.A. 10-101 et seq., K.S.A. 12-187 et seq., K.S.A. 12-1301 et seq., K.S.A. 12-1736 et seq., and K.S.A. 25-431 et seq, as amended?