Group Launches Effort To Extend Eco Devo Sales Tax

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Efforts are underway to continue a half-cent sales tax which Topeka area leaders say is crucial to keeping jobs in the Capital City.

The tax isn't set to expire until 2016, but supporters say now is the time to act to keep Topeka moving forward.

Supporters say the new Mars factory, under construction on Southwest 77th St., west of Heartland Park in South Topeka, is proof of the solid foundation being built by the half-cent sales tax for economic development.

Businessman Jim Parrish says the community would be weaker, the population would be shrinking and there wouldn't have been the strength to get through the economic crash without the tax and its resulting economic development efforts in place.

Parrish is among founding members of the group Future Forward, recently incorporated to push for voters to continue the tax, which expires in 2016. (WIBW-TV General ManagerJim Ogle is also a member.

Parrish says Shawnee County cannot afford to let the tax run out because it is the reason for so many successes.

The sales tax generates about $15 million a year, $5 million of which goes to Go Topeka and is aministered via the Joint Economic Development Organization.

Voters first approved the economic development sales tax in 2000, taking effect in 2002, as an extension of a tax used to pay for the Oakland Expressway bridge. In its first 10 years, Go Topeka says it's invested $1.2 billion dollars in 126 companies, creating or retaining nearly 10,000 jobs. Besides Mars, incentives were provided to attract Bimbo Bakeries and the Home Depot Distribution Center, and to retain or increase jobs at companies like Goodyear, Del Monte and PTMW.

The rest of the tax is earmarked for specific projects. In the past, those included certain road and bridge projects.

In its initial meetings, Future Forward suggests proceeds from the next extension go toward improving the stretch of SW 6th street that runs past Security Benefit, between Fairlawn and Wanamaker; upgrading the Domer Livestock Arena at the Kansas Expocentre; improvements at the Topeka Zoo and the Willard Bridge.

The fact that the group's plans included such specifics and involved meetings with city leaders concerned newly elected District 2 Topeka City Councilman John Campos when he learned of them. Campos says he doesn't believe there was any wrongdoing or even that the sales tax is necessarily a bad idea. However, he says the government needs to be transparent and he wants to ensure the public will have an opportunity to be heard. He's requested a work session for the city council to give its input on the issue.

Parrish says public input is exactly what the group will seek next. He says the group welcomes input and participation from the public because, he says, that his the only way the success will continue.

Parrish says the group would use private funding for its activities. So far, officials with Go Topeka and the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce say no public money or membership money has been given to Future Forward.

The Shawnee County Commission would need to approve what proposal is put to a public vote. This would be the second extension for the economic development sales tax. After its initial approval, voters in 2004 approved extending it the current 12 years.