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Oregon County mulling over law enforcement tax

Thursday, October 20, 2011

When Oregon County Sheriff George Underwood took office in January 2009, he thought his first pursuit would be a sales tax to bolster the county coffers for law enforcement.

Instead, Underwood put the campaign on hold, as Thayer Police Chief David Bailey already was pursuing a half-cent sales tax there.

Thayer's tax passed by a wide margin in April 2010, and now generates about $200,000 a year for the city.

(Photo)
Thayer Police Department benefitted from a special sales tax which has allowed them to update their patrol vehicles.
Like similar sales tax issues passed across the state, the revenue was proposed to supplement funds the law enforcement jurisdiction already receives from its government entity.

Lawmen across the state say that doesn't always turn out to be the way the sales tax money is doled out.

Jasper County

"The county commission started assigning me more bills that used to be paid out of general revenue," Jasper County Sheriff Archie Dunn said in October. "They are defeating what I worked so hard to get."

Dunn, sheriff since 2003, recently filed a lawsuit against the his county commission, accusing them of "dirty politics," for reappointing a new law enforcement grant board, among other things.

Dunn said he has seen his operating budget dwindle since a one-quarter cent sales tax was enacted there in 2005. Instead of augmenting existing funds, the tax revenue is becoming a larger part of the sheriff's budget, he said.

Jasper County's tax brings in about $3.5 million annually, part of which goes to law enforcement grants for other agencies within the county.

Dunn said the commission kept from him a $152,000 windfall last quarter, when a surge in construction after Joplin's May tornado boosted retail sales in the county.

"That should've been my money," Dunn said. "But, they said because I hadn't budgeted for it, I couldn't have it."

The Jasper County Commission's takeover of the fund "all goes back to power, control and money," Dunn said.

"They also control the law enforcement sales tax money," Dunn said of the commission's appointment of a new grant board. The board initially consisted of Dunn, two deputies and two residents. The new board has no law enforcement members.

Dunn said his county commissioners, some who have been his friends for years, would not support his effort in 2005 to pursue the tax, even though the county had money budgeted for elections.

Dunn said the commission told him to raise the money himself for an election if he wanted to put a tax issue on the ballot. Dunn raised $53,000 through private donations to pay for it.

"I've never heard of anything like that," Dunn said. "I'm not even sure it's legal."

The tax issue passed by a "good percentage," Dunn said, because he told voters where the money would be spent.

"I lived up to my promise," Dunn said. "I had 110 employees. Now I have 150."

Since the commission has taken control of the fund, however, Dunn said, "voters were misled." Sales tax money promised for law enforcement should not become a "general revenue tax," he said.

"It's a problem nationwide," Dunn said. "Every sheriff in the country has trouble with his county commission when they see a big pot of money."

Dunn said that even though he is up against his own county commission, he will continue the fight into the courtroom to honor the public's vote.

"I know what's right and I know what's wrong," Dunn said. "If the people's vote doesn't count, why have it?"

Thayer

In Thayer, Police Chief David Bailey has faced similar issues with the Board of Aldermen, although Bailey would not go on record about the fund, overseen solely by the city board.

In August, the board unanimously approved paying police department salaries for three months (about $90,000) from the sales tax fund because general revenue sales tax declined.

In September, the board approved a $1 per hour salary increase for the heads of the water and street departments to compensate them for earlier promotions. The board also approved a $1 per hour pay increase for City Clerk Donna Martin, although no reason was given publicly for her mid-year raise.

Martin said she did not ask for a raise, which came as a surprise to her.

After Thayer voters approved the tax, the police department's general revenue budget decreased, down by about 11 percent the first year.

Bailey said, since the sales tax went into effect, he has replaced seven vehicles. All had more than 100,000 miles on them. The department also hired one new full-time patrol officer.

Bailey's requests to set aside a portion of the tax money to build a new jail, however, have been denied by the board.

Howell County

Howell County voters passed a half-cent sales tax in 2000 for law enforcement, generating roughly $1 million annually.

At that time, the county commission passed a resolution that the sheriff's department would continue to receive $880,000 from general revenue annually, despite the additional income from the tax.

Howell County Clerk Dennis Von Allmen said the commission voted to maintain the same level of funding from general revenue, and has done so.

Last year, the tax netted $1,053,627, down about $40,000 from 2009. The tax generated it's largest amount from mid-2007 to mid-2008.

In 2007, Howell County paid the sheriff's department $23,580 for uniform allowances, divvied up among the sheriff and deputies at about $65 each monthly. The county also paid $7,590 in uniform allowances to detention workers. Jailers and dispatchers are not paid a uniform allowance.

In 2008, no Howell County law enforcement workers were paid the allowance. Then in 2009, only the sheriff's department got the money, about $10,000.

The allowance has not been paid since then.

Howell County Sheriff Mike Shannon said his deputies buy their own gear, which generally costs more than $1,000. One uniform costs about $100, he said, plus another $500 or $600 for a gun. Deputies also buy their own boots, gun belt, handcuffs and asp.

The department furnishes Taser guns.

Shannon said he would like to see a uniform allowance reinstated, but understands sales tax revenue is down. The county also used to have $100,000 set aside for the sheriff to draw from, which was depleted before Shannon took office in January 2009.

"The economy took a plunge," Shannon said. "With sales tax, you just never know."

Greene County

Greene County voters approved a three-eighths-cent law enforcement tax in 1998. One-eighth cent sunset after four years, the length of time needed to pay for building a $20 million jail.

The remaining one-quarter-cent tax has no sunset, and generates about $10.5 million annually.

Budget Officer Jeff Reinold said Greene County is not beset with the problems other jurisdictions report in handling the tax money.

How the money was to be split was decided upon in supplemental agreements to the ballot in 1998, Reinold said.

Springfield, which generates the bulk (about 85 percent) of the tax, gets a large portion. Other cities within the county get a share based on population.

Besides updating equipment, the sheriff's department gained 17 full-time employees, now at 82.

Reinold said the county has not decreased the sheriff's original budget since passage of the tax. In fact, it has increased, he said.

"We are an anomaly in the state of Missouri," Reinold said. "All of our officeholders get along."

Working out financial agreements before placing a tax issue on the ballot are key to harmony afterward, he said.

Ripley County

"It's a good thing, if it's written up right," Ripley County Sheriff Ron Barnett said of a law enforcement sales tax in general.

But, Barnett said, he also was burdened with paying for more from his budget after the tax passed a few years ago. One of the county prosecutor's secretaries is now paid from the sheriff's budget.

"I know you preach to the public that you need a law enforcement tax, but then it ends up going to general revenue," Barnett said. "With several fingers and hands in there, it gets whittled down pretty quick."

The half-cent Ripley County tax generates about $350,000 a year. The sheriff's department covers 600 square miles, with a population of about 16,000. The department has a sheriff, seven road deputies, one bailiff and one paper-server.

"A sales tax would be pretty tough to pass now," Barnett said. "You mention tax, and people start running backwards."

Oregon County

Meanwhile, Oregon County Sheriff Underwood has begun calculating how much additional revenue he would need to shore up his department.

Underwood operates now on about $300,000 a year. He has three road deputies, a chief deputy, three dispatchers, one bailiff and a secretary.

The road deputies cover 792 square miles, with a population of 14,000. At night, one dispatcher and one deputy are on duty. Some nights, no deputies are on patrol.

When something happens on those nights, Underwood said, he and his chief deputy are called in from home.

Besides not having enough staff, Underwood said the jail is outdated, although he said building a new jail is not being considered now, and could not be funded solely by a sales tax. The jail is housed on the third floor of the 75-year-old courthouse. It has eight beds, including the holding cell.

Previously, deputies bought some of their own equipment. Now, their gear is provided, along with a small uniform allowance.

"Last year, we bought guns and Tasers, but it put the budget in a bind by doing so," Underwood said.

Underwood said he spoke to many residents who "appear to be favorable" to a tax. He figures he will need a half-cent tax to generate about $400,000 annually.

"I'm just looking at maintaining what I currently have," Underwood said.

Oregon County Presiding Commissioner Patrick Ledgerwood said the commission has taken no action toward seeking a sales tax issue, although they have discussed it with Underwood.

"If a tax did pass, and it's done the right way, it would free up considerable money for the county to do other things," Ledgerwood said.

Underwood said he may seek a half-cent law enforcement sales tax issue in April 2012.


Comments
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sort of bad timing isn't it when deputies are being arrested. should citizens be taxed for the "privilege" of having to pay the salaries of crooks?

-- Posted by conventional1 on Fri, Oct 21, 2011, at 10:15 AM


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