Murray Bishoff: A light at the end of the tunnel

Saturday, January 19, 2019

We’ve become so used to government gridlock and confrontation as the norm that it hardly seems possible we could see anything but that.

Yet, the Lawrence County budget hearing on Thursday turned the tables on expectations, leaving room for optimism about the future.

A casual observer might have perceived two entrenched opposing interests. The county commission had to dig in two years ago when the money ran out. Though an economic stimulus tax like a sales tax remains capricious by its nature — sometimes up, sometimes down, pretty much beyond everyone’s control — the income powering the county had dipped below water level for sustaining services in 2017.

Since the subsequent passage of the law enforcement sales tax, a new revenue stream flowed into the county offering relief. It just wasn’t clear if the stream would water enough of the fields to bring back what had been lost. The lack of a rush to hire more deputies despite the sheriff’s loud outcry suggested fiscal conservatism would carry the day until the numbers smiled, whether or not the public felt the relief.

For several months now, we’ve been hearing rumblings from the sheriff’s camp, accusing the county commission of “bait and switch,” transferring the burden of law enforcement expenses onto the new tax, which had been split too many ways to effectively provide the relief initially envisioned. In theory, giving the sheriff control over the new money gave him greater budget flexibility than he has had before. If a new or pressing need surfaced, he could make his own spreadsheet and shift money around to address the problem. It wasn’t clear whether that idea ever had such flexibility. Like everything else in the county, the sheriff has a big field to irrigate.

The “bait and switch” chorus advocated the sheriff receive the same portion of the general fund revenue as prior to passage of the law enforcement sales tax. The commissioners, on the other side of the stage, continued singing, “The money only goes so far.” It didn’t look like common ground was big enough to hold both sides.

However, when the curtain rose on the budget hearing, the commissioners proved they had massaged the numbers a long time, and stretched the dollars past the expectations of the peanut gallery. The partisans will still sing their song, having learned it so well, but Sheriff Brad DeLay, much to his credit, essentially called a truce. This budget package had room for more foot soldiers in his world, and raises, and showed direction for a way out of the forest, though it will take a long time to build up enough reserves to fund the needs. Progress is progress, and DeLay was ready to take it.

Prosecutor Don Trotter weighed in to show putting more money into his office had not been a funding drain. On the contrary, more people in his arena made faster trials and reduced the number of people in the jail. He reported he studies the jail rolls “every day,” and releases prisoners on the once controversial ankle bracelet program if at all possible. He conceded some of those people, locked up on property crimes, may have to be recaptured. The ankle bracelet program has nonetheless reduced the jail population. He admitted those left in the jail are “all thugs,” making them no easy lot for jailers to handle. He implied non-violent prisoners ought to see that too, and be grateful for the chance to avoid incarceration, especially with that crowd.

Bit by bit, then, the grip of crime on Lawrence County seems less. Trotter said he has started to see total criminal activity decrease after several high years. The drop in homicides, the extremely time consuming cases for the prosecutor, has helped, though like the weather, little seems to regulate how that wind blows. Cumulatively, the tide seems to be turning.

While the wind blows favorably for county planners now, Treasurer Kathy Fairchild offered the warning during the hearing that no one wanted to hear. Sales taxes are not a consistent source of income. Another economic downturn will scatter the best laid plans. Lawrence Countians appear poised to consider the next big move, shifting the financial burden for 911 to a sales tax as well, since the system of landline surcharges has disintegrated right under our feet. That will leave one more potential sinkhole to navigate.

Economic engines generally don’t sputter because of local miscalculations. It’s the macro players at the state and federal levels who have the ability to turn the ship who cause those problems, and occasionally find the right course to sail. Just as we have seen those figures engage in singing simple songs, sewing the doubt and distrust that made it look unlikely that any political body could find a solution, the Lawrence County leaders offered a shining example this week that it doesn’t always have to go that way. There can be a way out. We want to see more of that going forward.

Murray Bishoff has served readers of The Monett Times since 1988. He can be reached at times-news@monett-times.com, or 417-235-3135.