County pulls plug on tax plan

Plans to fund a new senior center with a 11Ú2 percent utility tax failed Thursday for lack of a motion by Douglas County commissioners, after public outcry overwhelmingly opposed the increase.

County staff members were told to prepare a ballot question to fund the senior center for the 2006 ballot. Placing the initiative on the ballot will be discussed at a future meeting.

"We will give voters a chance to choose the funding mechanism," said commission Chairman Jim Baushke. "We'll see what happens at the ballot box."

Baushke urged center proponents to get out and support the cause and he wants the residents of Douglas County to know and stick to the facts.

"We have to think realistically about the needs of the county and the demographics it serves," he said. "We are the safety net. No one below us can do that. The county has to take responsibility and that's true all over the United States."

Community Service Director Scott Morgan said commissioners struggled with this issue. The crux of most arguments against have been the means of funding the project, not the value or importance of a senior center in Douglas County.

"It's never been a question about the value or importance of the senior center," he said. "We tried one recommendation and we received enough public outcry to take the thing in a different direction."

Bob Cook, president of the Senior Citizens Advisory Board, said he supports the commissioners' decision.

"The ball is back in our court and we'll carry on," he said. "We've been directed to purchase the Bently property and that's encouraging. We're in the middle of those negotiations and we're one step closer to having a new senior center."

Douglas County voters rejected advisory Question One, a proposal to fund a new senior center, community center and fine arts facility with a 3 percent utility tax, when it came before the voters in 2004. The state allows counties to levy up to 5 percent utility tax without voter approval.

Following that vote, commissioners narrowly approved a plan to build the center in early January with a 1.5 percent utility tax. If approved Thursday, the process would have been complete.

The measure would have brought an estimated $850,000 annually to fund the center.

"We all agree the need for a senior center needs to be critically addressed," said commissioner David Brady. "But considering the vote in 2004, this utility tax proposal erodes public trust and accountability."

Time is money, but the democratic process is important and it's not cheap, Brady said.

"We need to take this issue to the ballot, bring it back as an advisory question and be clear about the funding source," he said.

Commissioner Tim Smith said he didn't realize the extent of the opposition when he approved the utility tax in January. If schools and other government entities were exempted from this utility tax, not enough money would be left to fund the project.

"I'm not willing to tax another government entity when it can affect their services," he said. "I'm changing my decision at this time."

Designed to accommodate Douglas County's burgeoning senior population, the proposed 24,800-square-foot center could be located on 25 acres known as the Bently Depot Yard, northeast of Highway 395 in Minden.

The proposed facility would include a large commercial kitchen to provide meals on wheels and a much-needed expanded lunch program in addition to a large dining room and a senior daycare facility, deemed crucial by the Senior Advisory Committee.

Additional amenities would be added during the next two phases of the project.

Had the 1.5-percent fee been approved, it would have cost the average household about $47 a year, according to the estimates prepared by the advisory committee.

The tax would would have raised an estimated $850,000 annually to fund the center.

n Susie Vasquez can be reached at or 782-5121, ext. 211.


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