This is not a good time to be asking voters to increase their property taxes, says Todd Wiltgen, Lancaster County Commissioner, based on his conversations with voters.
That’s also what voters said during a recent telephone poll of 400 registered voters in the county about the Lancaster Event Center.
Most respondents to the poll said they liked the Event Center — many have gone to events there each year — but said they were not willing to pay more in property tax to help expand the venue.
Eighty-two percent had either a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of the center, a sprawling campus of indoor and outdoor event space at 84th Street and Havelock Avenue, where more than 300 events are held each year. And that positive attitude crossed political party lines and gender, based on the poll results.
But 65.5 percent of those polled were not likely to support an LEC expansion that would cost the average homeowner about $3 a month in additional property taxes.
After receiving information about the benefits of an expanded center — including a $32 million increase in annual economic impact — poll respondents were more likely to support using a blended financing plan that included sales tax and some property tax increases.
But a slight majority (50.5 percent) continued to be against a tax increase to support the expansion.
The center has been exploring ways to finance an expansion that would include a coliseum with fixed, raised seats, and another multipurpose building that would be available for livestock shows or trade show exhibitions.
The expansion would help attract more national livestock and ag shows and provide room for trade shows that already use the facility to grow in size, said LEC director Amy Dickerson.
Financing for a $60 million to $70 million expansion could include a bond issue, financed by an increase in the property tax, and a 1-cent sales tax on goods and services sold at the Event Center and nearby businesses.
The sales tax option, similar to the additional sales tax approved for SouthPointe Pavilions, would require Lincoln City Council approval.
A bond issue, funded through property tax, would require county board approval to put the issue on the ballot for voter approval.
Currently, LEC is big enough to take care of community events, but not really big enough to attract national-level shows, said Dickerson.
It is turning away business that could be handled by the expansion, she said.
The poll showed a very positive feedback about the Event Center itself, said Chris Peterson, a public affairs and government relations consultant whose firm handled the November poll including landline and cellphone numbers.
The poll, which included information about the benefits of the center and the expansion, followed by questions about funding the expansion, showed growing support from respondents for financing an expansion after they learned more about the benefits.
“The more you describe the benefits and talk about jobs and economic development, the more traction you get,” Peterson said.
That causes him to believe that an educational campaign, giving voters more information, would mean voters would be more open to voting for a ballot issue, he said.
But that doesn't mean the Lancaster County Ag Society or county can put any issue on the ballot and voters will approve it, he said.
Based on the poll results, Peterson said he doesn't "think the door is closed entirely on the property tax component, but there has to be a plan that is weighted toward sales tax.”
“The more heavily weighted it is toward the property tax, the more hesitant voters will be to approve it," he said.
The city’s library board is interested in the poll results and the potential LEC request for bond approval and additional property tax dollars, said Pat Leach, director of the city libraries.
The board has been considering seeking voter approval of a bond for a new downtown library. The city will probably be providing information on that project in early 2018, Leach said.
A city vote on the library expansion could be scheduled in 2018, she said.
Dickerson said she wasn't sure of an Event Center timeline, but there could be a vote in 2018.
The results of the LEC poll do not reflect voter attitudes about a library bond, cautioned Peterson.
The library and the Event Center have different patrons who support, believe in and attend each venue.