Proposed tax increase

THE NORFOLK CITY COUNCIL has conducted three open houses, including one for residents around Winter Park, to discuss projects with a proposed 1/2 percent sales tax increase. The Norfolk City Council could vote as early as Monday to have it placed before voters in November.

Plans are still in the works for the Norfolk City Council to put forth a bond issuance that would fund everything from a police station overhaul and expansion to new recreational opportunities.

The overall project was announced at about $68 million this week but still could be altered. It would be paid back by a half-percent increase in the city sales tax for 20 years.

The proposal will have to be approved by voters and still must be put forth by the Norfolk City Council. If it is to be voted on during the November general election, it will have to be approved by the council by the end of the month.

The Norfolk City Council has discussed four aspects for the proposal during working sessions but had previously not released total cost estimates until this week, although it had been discussed in general amounts.

The proposal would include an indoor aquatic facility at Winter Park; upgraded and more ballfields at Ta-Ha-Zouka Park, along with more campsites, pickleball courts, more parking, restrooms and concessions stands; accelerated street improvements; and expanding and renovating the 35-year-old police station to serve additional officers and new law enforcement duties.

Nate Powell, Norfolk’s parks and recreation director, said estimates are that Ta-Ha-Zouka Park improvements would cost about $31 million but could be done in phases with a starting point of $15 million to $19.5 million; and $32 million for a 44,000-square-foot facility for the aquatics center, including cost escalation.

Andy Colvin, city administrator, said the estimates are $8.5 million for the police station and $10 to $12 million for streets. The total of $68 million doesn’t include all the phases for Ta-Ha-Zouka Park.

Colvin said the city council must forward the ballot language to Madison County officials by the end of August. Another requirement will be to have an interlocal agreement with Madison County, which is expected to be a formality.

“There’s no financial obligation on behalf of the county,” Colvin said.

With three open houses to discuss it, including one with just the neighbors at Winter Park, council members said they are likely to vote on the proposal Monday, Aug. 15.

The council has scheduled a working session that day at noon, followed by a meeting at 5:30 p.m. The working session will be designed to see if there are parts the council members want to change before possibly approving it that evening — or it could be delayed until another special meeting this month.

Council member Shane Clausen said it is important to remember that, ultimately, any proposal will have to be approved by Norfolk voters.

“Two of these projects obviously are community driven,” Clausen said.

Ta-Ha-Zouka Park ballfield improvements and expansions have been discussed for years but have been delayed. An indoor pool and aquatic center is more recent, although there has been discussion previously about the need for another indoor pool in recent years, Clausen said.

Rob Merrill, council president, said the council wants the public to have all the information before voting on it in November. There may even be weekly open houses to meet with constituents up until the election to get out all the information, if needed, he said.

Merrill said Norfolk has had a lot of growth since the police station opened in the late 1980s.

“Without that growth, that addition doesn’t happen,” Merrill said. “It kind of necessities that it happen.”

Merrill said he agrees that residents will need to know about what they are all voting on.

“Informing the public of what is contained in here and what it is going to cost is going to be critically important,” Merrill said.

Nebraska has a sale tax rate of 5.5%. Norfolk has a rate of 1.5% but could increase it up to 2%.

Merrill said it is worth noting that the additional sales tax on a $100 item would be only 50 cents.

So has the council considered another occupational tax? Norfolk previously funded a water park and improvements to Memorial Field with a lodging, food and beverage occupation tax that was ended about six years early because of higher than anticipated receipts. Many cities in Nebraska use such taxes.

Merrill said his personal feelings are that the half-percent sales tax is fairer because it is broader and not just for certain industries like the occupational tax.

It also is worth noting that Northeast Nebraska is such a hub, the half-percent sales tax is paid for by more than Norfolkans, Merrill said. Studies have indicated that as much as 30% to 40% of the revenue from sales tax comes from out of town, he said.

“The folks that come in and enjoy the aquatic center or Ta-Ha, or go to the library, those kind of services people recognize as a benefit and it brings them to town,” Merrill said. “If they are paying a little bit more, I don’t think you are going to hear them complain much.”

In 2014, voters approved a half-percent sales tax to be collected over 36 months to fund the Norfolk Public Library expansion and renovation.

Colvin said the city collected a little extra money above what the library renovation and expansion cost, so those funds have to go toward the library park improvements.

The city is going to build a storywalk and playground in Warren Cook Park in the adjacent park to the library, Colvin said.

Clausen said there are a lot of parts to the latest proposal. Once it is put forth and a vote occurs, the council will have a better feel for the direction that citizens want to go — if it isn’t successful, he said.

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