Proposed downtown sales tax heads to voters

The new tax would add about five cents to a $10 purchase.
Casey Purcella / Graphic Designer

Local shoppers might soon see a slight bump up in their sales tax if voters approve a new sales tax aimed at raising money for improvements in downtown Columbia.

The Downtown Community Improvement District is holding an election by mail over the next two weeks to decide whether shoppers at downtown businesses should have to pay an additional one-half percent sales tax.

Carrie Gartner, the group’s executive director, said the additional tax money would help pay for improvements to the downtown area, including the installation of free wireless Internet access and sidewalk recycling bins.

"There's a lot of things people are asking for that we just can't afford," Gartner said.

But though some students may see the extra sales tax when they shop or eat downtown, many will not get to vote for it — even if they are registered to vote at their Columbia address.

The state law that allows for the CID’s election states that only voters who live within the boundaries of the downtown district are eligible to participate in the mail vote, in the same way that only people who live within the boundaries of a fire protection district can vote on taxes in that district.

The downtown CID’s boundaries are roughly rectangular, including most of the downtown shopping district, going as far north as Park Avenue, as far west as Providence Road and as far east as Short Street. The district’s southern boundary is along Elm Street, north of MU residential halls and most student residences.

Gartner acknowledged that if the tax passes, people could end up paying it even if they never got to vote on it. But she said people who shop in other parts of the city often end up paying sales taxes for which they never got to cast a vote.

Other commercial areas in the city, called Transportation Development Districts, are able to levy a sales tax in that area without holding a mail vote.

Gartner said the CID’s mail election, by contrast, requires it to get the voters’ input on the proposed tax.

"I think what we're doing requires a lot more outreach, which seems to be a higher standard, (than the one to which TDDs are held)," Gartner said.

Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren said that about 150 people are currently registered to vote at addresses within the boundaries of the downtown CID. 

But Noren added that anyone who currently lives downtown can update his or her address and get a ballot as late as Nov. 8 as long as it is received by 7 p.m. that day. Noren said ballots on the sales tax issue were mailed out this week and must be received by her office by 7 p.m. on Nov. 8.

Noren said the mail vote will cost about $1,300 less than the cost of operating a polling place for a typical election. The Community Improvement District will be paying the costs of the election, as would a fire district or a school district for their own elections.

Columbia City Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said the tax, if approved, would in a way be passing on the costs of improving downtown to the people who use it the most.

Hoppe represents the Sixth Ward, which is largely outside the bounds of the CID, but which covers many student residences in southern Columbia. She said sales taxes like the one being voted on are common and don’t seem to deter shoppers from businesses.

“The people who pay the tax might not be the ones who vote on it,” Hoppe said. “But what you do have a say on is where you choose to shop.”

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