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Angered by new sales tax, county gives Panera a new 'spread' for its bread

SAINT ROBERT, Mo. (Dec. 20, 2010) — A special tax district intended to pay for economic development in the area now occupied by Panera Bread and Kentucky Fried Chicken met a buzzsaw Monday morning at the county commission.

Kevin Hillman, who is currently the St. Robert city attorney but in less than two weeks will take office as the new Pulaski County prosecutor, presented documents authorizing a sales tax district covering the former Ramada property owned by Steve Ehrhardt and the adjacent property of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hillman explained to the county commissioners that special tax districts can be approved either by a vote of property owners in the district — which in this case would be only two people, Ehrhardt and Kentucky Fried Chicken property owner Brian McCarty — or by having the property owners sign legal documents which, according to state statute, are then “spread upon the record of the county commission” to create an official record in the county’s minutes in lieu of an election.

Commissioners weren’t happy with the special tax, even though Hillman explained they didn’t need to approve the tax but only include it in their minutes.

“Is this going to cause the sales tax to go up more in St. Robert?” asked Presiding Commissioner Don McCulloch. “Are you aware people are going out of town to shop?”

Hillman said the sales tax rate will only go up in the small area affected by the tax district, which will help pay for a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 44 between the former Ramada Inn property and the hotels and businesses on the other side of the interstate. St. Robert already has several other special tax districts for transportation, one of which covers the Wal-Mart area and was used to build the roads and other infrastructure needed to support the business district on St. Robert Boulevard; similar special tax districts exist in Waynesville and Crocker.

The total sales tax in the Wal-Mart area is 8.225 percent; tax in the new special tax district, which now includes Panera Bread and Kentucky Fried Chicken but is soon expected to include more businesses at the junction of Missouri Avenue and Old Route 66, will be 8.725 percent.

“What if we don’t approve it?” McCulloch asked. “I liked Panera bread until you told me this … It gives you more indigestion when you go to Panera.”

“I’ll never eat at Panera again, I’m telling you,” McCulloch said.

“I actually don’t think you have to approve it,” Hillman replied.

County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer concurred.

“I think it just makes you aware of the fact,” Linnenbringer said.

While the city of St. Robert didn’t set the new transportation district tax rate, Hillman defended his city’s decision to ask the voters to approve a recent tax for a city aquatic center, and noted that it passed by a large margin of city voters.

“Rolla and Lebanon both have a pool tax like we do; if they go to Rolla or Lebanon, they are funding the center in Rolla or the pool in Lebanon,” Hillman said.

Western District Commissioner Ricky Zweerink didn’t agree.

“I’m telling you, people are going out of town because the tax is 7 percent or more,” Zweerink said.

“I, for one, am getting tired of it,” said McCulloch. “I’m just speaking up for people with what I’ve heard. It’s easy for you’uns to do all these things.”

Responding to questions from McCulloch, incoming presiding commissioner Gene Newkirk, who defeated McCulloch in the November election and was until recently a St. Robert alderman, said the pedestrian bridge over Interstate 44 was proposed because people have died trying to cross the interstate on foot.

Hillman said cities like St. Robert have little choice if they want to remain competitive with other communities trying to attract businesses.

“When folks go to Lebanon they ought to look because they’ve got them there too,” Hillman said. “We are in competition with everybody else to get these things and in order to get these things we’ve got to do these things.”

That’s not necessarily true, Zweerink warned.

“When they go to Wal-Mart in Lebanon, the sales tax is lower … you’re going to get these so high that you’re not going to be able to do them,” Zweerink said. “I don’t mean to be mean, but that’s what’s going to face us down the road.”

Eastern District Commissioner Bill Farnham, whose constituency includes residents of St. Robert as well as Waynesville, noted that Ehrhardt has paid for many projects out of his own money and should be commended for that.

McCulloch noted that while St. Robert is reaping the benefits of the taxes to build amenities, residents who live in other cities are paying for them by shopping in St. Robert.

“I know why people in St. Robert are doing this, but when people go to shop, they don’t necessarily care if there is a putt-putt golf course or pool there,” McCulloch said. “If you poll the rest of the county they’re not all happy.”

Picking up on the language of the statute allowing the special taxes by unanimous approval of property owners without a vote, commissioners agreed they had little choice but to “spread upon the record of the county commission” the St. Robert tax district.

“You’ve spread it upon us,” Zweerink said. “You don’t know how hot a topic this is in Dixon, Crocker and Richland … Where they get really hot is when they (in St. Robert) raise taxes for these things and they don’t even get a chance to vote on them.”

“Go spread it,” said Farnham. “We don’t get the right to vote on them either in Waynesville, and I’m telling you, we go there more because we’re closer.”

“I’m guessing you’re going to spread it on me too,” Hillman said.

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