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Barry County leaders make pitch for sales tax

Monday, October 24, 2011

Barry County government officials were well represented at the meeting on the proposed 3/16th of a cent sales tax held Thursday at the Monett City Park Casino. From left are: Northern Commissioner Frank Washburn, Prosecutor Johnnie Cox, Southern Commissioner Wayne Hendrix and Presiding Commissioner Cherry Warren. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Barry County government leaders made their pitch for a 3/16th of a cent sales tax before a Monett audience of around 30 people at the Monett City Park Casino on Thursday.

Presiding Commissioner Cherry Warren introduced several county officials who provided details about the need for more funding to support law enforcement.

Treasurer Lois Lowe said that in 2010, the county spent $3.4 million. Of that total, $1,554,000, or 89 percent of its sales tax revenue, was spent on law enforcement services, including the prosecutor's office, the sheriff's department, the jail, the juvenile office, the Southwest Missouri Drug Task Force, the courts and the cost of holding trials.

Trials are a particular concern in the coming year, said Prosecutor Johnnie Cox. The two death penalty jury trials in the homicide of Rowan Ford are expected to cost the county $100,000 each.

The county raises an additional $900,000 in fees from services by the collector, clerk and recorder's offices, Cox said. While the fees pay for the operation and staff in those offices, law enforcement does not generate much income. The bad check fund in the prosecutor's office used to produce significantly more until Walmart stopped running its checks through local prosecutors.

The proposed sales tax would generate approximately $650,000 a year at the present level of economic activity. Cox's office would receive $200,000 of that amount. Cox said he would boost his staff by making his part-time assistant prosecutor full time and hiring another part-time assistant.

With a growing case load, Cox said more staff would only get his office up to the staffing level of adjacent counties.

At the present time, Cox said his cases sometimes take six months to go to trial. More staff would enable him to speed up the process. With an extended delay, Cox said it is often difficult to find witnesses, and at times, even officers who work those cases move on.

"I want to be able to do a better job for the citizens of Barry County," Cox said.

Sheriff Mick Epperly talked about the challenges of patrolling a county that encompasses 780 square miles with five officers for the day and five for the night.

"You have more officers in the Monett city limits than we have in the county," Epperly said.

Warren said the new sales tax would enable the county to have six deputies that it could not afford otherwise. Around $200,000 of the sales tax revenue would go to the sheriff and the jail.

The tax would have a five-year sunset, requiring voters to reauthorize it like the current half-cent sales tax for roads and bridges.

Audience members wanted to know where the remaining $240,000 generated by the tax would go. Warren said the funds would only be used for law enforcement, including equipment like patrol cars. A reserve fund would also be established to take care of future capital improvement needs.

Monett resident Ralph Scott responded to the presentation by pointing out that it appeared the sales tax was not specifically earmarked for law enforcement, so there was no guarantee the money would not end up on other county operations.

Warren said the county is in an unusual position. State law requires a balanced budget but does not allow the county to adjust its budget if revenues drop below expectations. Therefore, major spending items for the county, such as all of the equipment, are placed in the county commission's budget. Patrol cars do not have to be purchased if the money falls short, while leaving the sheriff's budget intact, Warren said.

Audience members again took issue with the practice of using the general fund for law enforcement purchases, which mixed funds together and left no guarantee the money would not be used for non-law-enforcement purposes.

County Clerk Gary Youngblood said expenses such as patrol cars would come from the new tax instead of the general fund.

Cox said he would not promote the proposal if it meant his budget would remain the same after passage, leaving the money to go into the general fund.

Several in the audience expressed sympathy for the officers. One rural Monett businessman said a higher presence of officers deters lawbreakers.

"Overall, the goal is to provide better services," Epperly said. "If it doesn't pass, services will likely go down. We're on a shoestring now."

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