County meeting draws standing-room-only crowd

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A standing-room only crowd filled the Barry County Courthouse's downstairs courtroom last Thursday night to listen to county officeholders detail the need for an additional sales tax for law enforcement and public safety.

Prosecuting Attorney Johnnie Cox and Sheriff Mick Epperly both made presentations, detailing an increase in caseloads, a decrease in staffing and a rise in expenses that left both offices short of the resources necessary to provide for the public safety needs of Barry County citizens.

Presiding Commissioner Cherry Warren opened the public meeting by providing an overview of county growth over the past 20 years. He also reminded those present that the county had been operating on the same half-cent sales tax that voters approved in 1993. At the time, the sales tax passed, the county stopped collecting a property tax and is now strictly supported by the sales tax and fees generated by county offices.

In 2002, the county was able to build a new Barry County Judicial Center without taking on any debt, and jail expansions projects were completed in 1996 and 2008, all without seeking an additional source of revenue from county residents.

Over the past three years, sales tax revenue has stagnated. In 2009, the county's sales tax revenue dropped by $164,747 compared to 2008 levels, and in 2010, total sales tax revenue was up only $11,517 over 2009 levels.

"As of August receipts, the county sales tax revenues are up one and a half percent over last year," said Warren.

As a result, the county has approved austere budgets, and county employees have not received a cost-of-living raise for four years.

"Most of our expenses in county government are public safety," said Warren. "Only nine employees don't work for public safety. All the rest (of the county's 90 employees) are tied to public safety."

Warren said the county would be faced with making severe cutbacks to personnel and services in next year's budget without additional revenue sources.

"We didn't think we should wait until January and make severe cuts without your input," said Warren. "This is our situation and we'll deal with it. If we don't feel we have the support of the public to pass a sales tax, we won't put it on the ballot."

Warren said the county is considering placing a three-16th of a cent sales tax on the November ballot, which would generate about $650,000 in additional revenue for the county each year. Based on annual purchases of $10,000, area residents would pay an additional $18.80 a year or $1.88 a month in sales tax if the issue were approved.

"We realize there are a lot of people on fixed incomes and having trouble making ends meet," Warren said. "We'll accept what the people tell us. We work for you, and we thank you for the opportunity to serve.

"Our county business is like any business," Warren continued. "No business stands till. You either move forward or go backward."

Northern Commissioner Frank Washburn spoke to the crowd of over 100 and told them that the county was currently operating on a budget that had "no fat to cut."

"We tried to get by hopeing the economy would turn around, and it doesn't look like it will," said Washburn. "We have to increase revenue or make drastic cuts in personnel."

In addition to declining sales tax revenue, Cox explained that fees received by the county had also decreased. He said in the late 1990s and early 2000, fees were up considerably due to people refinancing their homes, a trend that decreased drastically in the mid-2000s. Bad check fees have also declined. More people are using debit cards and many area businesses no longer accept personal checks.

Another reason behind a drop in bad check cases is the fact that Walmart now handles bad check cases through its own centralized collection system. Bad check fees totalled $41,065.43 in 2007 and then dropped to $27,454.63 in 2010.

While revenue is declining, the county is faced with increased expenses in the areas of health insurance, fuel, vehicle maintenance and food costs for prisoners.

According to Epperly, food expenses at the jail have risen by 338 percent from $16,397 in 2000 to $70,840 in 2011. The average daily occupancy at the jail has also risen sharply from 25 in 2000 to 72 in 2011. In the last 10 years, patrol car fuel costs have more than doubled from $28,374 in 2000 to $72,932 in 2010.

If the sales tax issue passes, the increased revenue would be used to hire a full-time assistant prosecutor, a full-time investigator and another full-term clerk for the prosecutor's office. Revenue would also be placed in reserves to cover the cost of trying two capital murder trials in 2012, which are projected to cost the county $100,000 each.

"Up to now, we've been able to absorb the costs of the trials," said Cox. "So far, I've spent 60 days in depositions in Kansas City, Springfield or Cassville. These expenses are going to begin to be costly as we have to cover the cost of jurors and county staff where these trials are going to be held."

If the additional sales tax for public safety is approved, Cox said the addition of staff in his office will mean improved contact with victims of crime, quicker processing of cases, better availability to law enforcement and the public and better preparation for jury trials.

"On average, we have more charges filed in Barry County than either Stone or Lawrence County," said Cox. "Both counties have more prosecutors and more staff in their offices, and we file more charges."

Cox added that he has a proven track record for drawing the line on spending.

"My office has come in under budget all eight years I've been in office," said Cox. "My office has also collected over $1 million in restitution for victims of crime. You can trust that we'll use your dollars wisely and conservatively as I believe we have a track record of doing."

In the sheriff's department, increased revenue would be used to hire two more deputies (positions that were cut from the 2009 budget and not reinstated), to purchase two additional patrol cars a year and to cover increasing food costs at the jail. Epperly said he would also like to see his deputies and other staff members receive pay increases. Currently, the starting salary for a deputy is $22,000, which is half the poverty level.

"We have to live within our budgets, but these county employees need to be paid," said Epperly.

A number of audience members addressed the commission, including several residents from Monett who questioned Warren about the cost of the ongoing lawsuit over tax increment financing (TIF). To date, the suit has cost Barry County approximately $180,000 in legal fees.

Cox addressed the TIF issue by saying the lawsuit had nothing to do with how his office handled cases for Monett.

"We handle the Monett felony cases in our office, and we do everything we can for you," said Cox.

A handful of those in attendance expressed their concerns that citizens would be required to pay more sales tax during a time when many households were having trouble making ends meet.

Citizens also asked whether the commission was going to place a sunset clause on the tax proposal. Warren said it was likely the commission would ask voters to approve the tax for five years, after which time the issue would be placed back on the ballot for renewal, like the county's half-cent sales tax for roads and bridges.

Near the end of the meeting, which lasted an hour and a half, Warren asked for a show of hands indicating who would be against an additional sales tax for public safety and law enforcement and who would be in favor of the issue. A majority of those attending the meeting voted in favor of the tax.

County commissioners have until Aug. 30 to vote on the sales tax proposal and place it on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Warren said if the county decides to pursue the additional three-16th of a cent sales tax, the commission will hold informational meetings about the issue at locations across Barry County.

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