Two issues that will face voters on the Aug. 5 primary elections ballot were  endorsed by the Neosho Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee after hearing from supporters of those issues during the committee’s quarterly meeting on Wednesday.

Dan Decker, superintendent. Neosho R-5 School District, reported that the school board has again placed a $24 million bond issue on the ballot to construct a junior high school near Carver elementary.

Decker said that some in the community will not support a new junior high, but are in favor of a new high school. He said the district is unable to bond enough to build a new high school.

“Right now our maximum amount would be in the $34 million to $36 million range, and a new high school the size we would need here at Neosho would fall between $58 million to $62 million,” Decker said. “It’s not an option now to do something of that nature.”

Decker said that leaves building a junior high school as the most logical decision to alleviate the district’s overcrowding problem, by taking the eighth grade out of the high school and the seventh grade from the middle school.

“The board has done a very nice job of planning in that this new junior high facility would have classrooms for between 850 and 900 students now, which would take on the grades that we are going to put there, but the main rooms like the cafeteria, the gym, commons and some of those kinds of rooms will be designed to double the capacity of students,” he said. “And in the engineering plan for the building, it will be done so that if 10 years down the road, maybe even six years down the road, if the community decided, ‘Yes, we do want to do something with a new high school,’ we could come back and duplicate that facility as far as the classrooms go, and be able to hold between 1,800 and 2,000 students. So we’d like to have a new high school in some aspects: there’s a lot of people who would. It’s not feasible now, but I think the plan we have in place makes it feasible in the future.”

Decker told the committee that though the school district is already out of space, it is still growing.

“To have all of our students in a classroom safe and secure within a building will be a challenge,” he said.

If the measure does not pass, Decker said it would probably take two years to develop a new plan to bring to voters, and there would then be about 200 additional students in Neosho schools.

He said some good teachers have left the district, some because they were teaching in one of the system’s many trailers and have told him they wanted to be in a community that values their service enough to provide the proper surroundings for instruction.

Decker said passage of the bond issue would incur an extra $45 in annual taxes on the typical home in the school district.

Mike Franks, executive director, Neosho Area Business & Industrial Foundation, Inc. (NABIFI), remarked, “We’re playing catch up for what we didn’t do as a community in the (19)60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Franks said Neosho schools have not gained ground except for building the middle school in the ‘90s.

Agreeing with Decker that a junior high is the proper option, Franks said Neosho has a high quality gym and football field that would have to be duplicated elsewhere, at great additional cost, if a new high school were to be built.
He surmised, “This plan is appropriate.”

Decker said the key to getting the measure approved this time will be getting patrons who did not vote in April to get out and vote. Receiving just over 52 percent support in April, the bond issue needs at least a four-sevenths majority, or 57.14 percent approval for passage. He said only 3,000 of the school district’s 15,000 registered voters went to the polls in the previous election, and urged committee members to join the mission to seek out those who did not vote in April and are in favor of the proposal and encourage them to get out and vote Aug. 5.

“Word of mouth is going to be huge,” Decker said.

In other business, the committee heard from Rudy Farber, the former Missouri Highway Transportation Commission chairman who is now the co-chair of Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, an organization that is pushing for passage of Constitutional Amendment 7, which would enact a ¾-cent sales tax for 10 years to fund road and bridge construction and maintenance in the state.

Farber said it was known when he was on the commission that the state would develop a problem funding roads. He reported that the fuel tax in the state has not been adjusted since 1992, and stands at 17-cents per gallon, along with a federal fuel tax of 18-cents. “That 17-cents now is worth about 8-cents, and that 18-cents is worth about 9-cents”. “Gas consumption is going down and will continue to go down further with more efficient vehicles,” Farber said. “As gallons go down, revenues, go down. We’re in a serious dilemma as far as funding.”

Without a change, Farber said the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) construction budget will be about $325 million by 2017.

“It takes $500 million just to maintain the roads we have without construction of new roads,” he said. “If we don’t address the problem, we will have serious deterioration of our roads.”

Farber explained that a solution has been sought and researched for about eight years. He noted that extensive polling has found that only a sales tax to fund roads has gained positive support, at 54 percent, while all other means poll in the low 20 percent range.

He said a ¾-cent sales tax would generate $540 million annually, with five percent going to cities and 5 percent of the take going to counties for local projects, while state projects would gain the majority of the funding.

Farber said food, medicine, health care, gasoline and rent would be exempt from the additional sales tax, so the argument that it would place an extra burden on low-income individuals lacks merit.

He said some think a sales tax is regressive, but explained that trying to raise the funding through an increased fuel tax would hurt people the most. Farber said some want to “sock it to truckers,” but doing so would incur a 75 percent increase on diesel fuel, and those costs would be passed along to the consumer, increasing the costs of just about everything you buy. Under a sales tax, he said the price of items would not be affected.

Farber said the sales tax will sunset in 10 years, so if people don’t feel MoDOT has kept its promises at that time, the state’s citizens can refuse to renew it. Meanwhile, except for by a vote of the people, he said the gas tax cannot be increased nor can toll roads be developed in the state during those 10 years. Farber said the state legislature would have no power to divert the funds, which would be stored in the Highway Trust fund.

 “If it does not pass,” he said, “more people will die on our roads; and there will be less economic activity, which means fewer jobs. Some want to do it differently. There is no other option.”

Because of Missouri’s location, Farber said we have an opportunity in this state to be a distribution center for the nation.

“We won’t do it without good roads, highways, bridges and ports,” he said.

John Branham, president, Branco Enterprises, said his company benefits greatly from having quality roads and highways, and added that the designation of Interstate 49 has been a boost, something that could not have happened without ample highway funding. Branham opined that the federal government is going to have to come up with something new for highway funding, as they realize the current funding mechanism is broken and no longer working.

After each of the speakers, the committee voted to come out on record in endorsement of the two measures on the August ballot.

Ray Stipp, chairman, explained that the tie between economic development and education is strong.

“We hear all the time from industrial prospects and retail prospects that want to come here,” Stipp said. “They take a really close look at our educational opportunities – our local school district and what kind of facilities we that we have, how our test scores are, what kind of environment their kids would have if they brought them here and their employees would have, and so that tie is really strong.”

Stipp said the committee has supported local education for many years, and the same with roads.

“We’ve seen dramatically with the I-49 designation how it has helped with Love’s [truck stop] locating here, and with other things that have happened,” he said.

When recruiting for retail to locate here, Stipp said one of the first questions is, “Where is the closest interstate? And then they want to know how our roads are, they want to know about Walmart — that’s always a big item — and, ‘What’s the network around Walmart?’”

Stipp explained that previous to development of the Transportation Development District (TDD), Neosho was pretty well locked up as far as locations around Walmart. With the TDD, he said that will open up many opportunities for development.

“Roads are just hugely important to not only industrial development but to retail development,” Stipp said. “So, we don’t like to pay taxes anymore than anyone else does; but we understand that you can do it in either of these cases as an investment because it will come back to us I think, in terms of more jobs and more revenue, even though we’re spending a little extra money for taxes.”