The city of Merriam has taken its case for a new community center to the public, and so far, officials like what they’ve heard.
“For the most part the feedback has been pretty positive,” City Administrator Chris Engel said following the Merriam City Council’s meeting Monday. “We need to have a little deeper reach into the community, look people in the eye and see what they think, but I feel optimistic.”
City staff and council members are sold on the idea of a new center, which would have an indoor pool and cost an estimated $25 to $30 million and be paid for with a quarter-cent sales tax increase. It would replace the aging Irene B. French Community Center and Merriam Aquatic Center and sit on the five-acre aquatic center site.
But before the council officially gets the ball rolling on the project — via a ballot resolution that would green-light a public vote on the quarter cent sales tax increase to fund the project — Engel and other officials want to spend more time getting a feel for how that vote may go.
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“We want this to be an easy decision, if we make it,” he said. “We’re still in the informational stage.”
To that end, the city will be on hand at the Turkey Creek Festival on May 20 in Antioch Park to answer any questions residents may have. Plans are also in the works to set up shop outside Hen House in Merriam Town Center, in parks and, in a few weeks, at the aquatic center.
“It’s important we take this out to where people are,” Engel said.
Those efforts follow a community meeting in the French center April 25, which drew about 40 people. One neighborhood association meeting followed that, and more are expected, Engel said.
It’s still unknown when a public vote might occur, but Engel said the city is leaning toward a mail-in ballot as the preferred method of voting. Mail-in ballots typically garner significantly higher participation than votes that require people to go to a polling station, he said.
“People want the opportunity to vote, and this is important enough to get everyone participating,” he said. “We don’t want 20 percent of residents deciding this.”
The proposed sales tax increase would fund a 20-year bond to pay for the bulk of the project. If it passes, the annual cost to Merriam residents would be about $32 per person.
If Merriam voters reject the project, the city is expected to make major upgrades to the French center and the aquatic center. The city estimates it would likely spend about $630,000 annually to run the new center, $90,000 less than it would cost to run the old center and pool.
Following its regular meeting Monday, the council held a work session to listen to the city’s finance director, Cindy Ehart, and Engel lay out projections for the city’s 2018 budget. The council won’t likely vote on the budget until August.
Merriam’s current mill levy of 27.63 per $1,000 of assessed value is the fifth lowest property tax rate among area cities in Johnson County, and that levy is projected to remain unchanged in 2018, Ehart told council members.
“Our sales tax revenues allow residents to pay relatively low property taxes while still enjoying world-class services,” Engel told members.
Merriam’s revenue is expected to jump from $17.8 million this year to $18.3 million in 2018, 47 percent of which will be generated by sales taxes and just 22 percent by property taxes.
The city’s general fund balance is projected to fall from $5.9 million in 2017 to $5.3 million in 2018.
Property tax revenues are set to rise 6.2 percent thanks to a 4.2 percent increase in property values. Sales taxes revenues are projected to increase by 2.5 percent.
Those numbers could easily change, however, Mayor Ken Sissom pointed out during the meeting, if expected new retail projects in Merriam get underway. The city is slated to get a new car dealership on the west side of Interstate 35, and redevelopment of the former K Mart property at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Antioch Road also is on the horizon.