On Friday, Jan. 25, Oregon County Commissioners announced that county residents will be asked on the April 2 ballot to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to fund local law enforcement.
The decision came after a month of number crunching as the commissioners held their annual budget hearing.
According to Presiding Commissioner Patrick Ledgerwood, the Law Enforcement Tax, "will go on the April second ballot, county wide and will ask the voters, 'Should the county impose a half cent sales tax for the purposes of Law Enforcement.'
If passed, the money from the sales tax will go into a separate account to fund the Sheriff's Department."
Residents of Oregon County may see the proposed tax as an increase they cannot afford, but Commissioners believe the tax increase would have a minimal impact on people's budgets. An example they used when discussing the tax was, the purchase of $100 of groceries, would result in a tax increase of just 50 cents.
"Our side of it is," Ledgerwood said, "there is over $300,000 that is spent from our General Revenue funds for the Sheriff's Department. We run every office out of our General Revenue fund, except for roads. The biggest piece is the Sheriff's
Office. It would free up money that we could use to make improvements." Ledgerwood estimated that a Law Enforcement sales tax would bring in around $400,000 a year for operation of the Sheriff's Office.
One of the needs the commissioners mentioned is a heating and cooling upgrade in the courthouse.
"Our heating and cooling is most inefficient here in the courthouse. We are heating with diesel and cooling with window air conditioner units. If we could switch, we would save a lot of money yearly (on utility costs)," Ledgerwood said.
Northern Commissioner Ed Casey made the point that some Sheriff 's money currently coming from the General Fund could be saved to eventually build a new jail.
"Along with improvements to the courthouse, we would be looking at being able to build a jail in the future. We spent a lot of money last year paying Thayer to hold prisoners because we didn't have the room. We could also make a profit
by holding prisoners for other counties by charging $40 a day," Casey said.
County Clerk Tracy Bridges pointed out the county has not had a sales tax increase, or change for that matter since 1989.
"No one likes a tax, including us, but Oregon County is pretty awesome because the county only functions off a .75 percent sales tax," Bridges said.
Oregon County is operating with the only sales tax it ever established.
The South Missourian News found that Sheriff George Underwood supports the Law Enforcement sales tax proposal.
"The Law Enforcement sales tax would assist us in having additional staffing to control the county with, perform investigations and have a deputy all night. It would also enable us to purchase much needed equipment
There are currently three road deputies, in addition to Chief Deputy Eric King and Sheriff Underwood to cover 792 square miles and 105,000
acres of forest land.
"Residents and voters know the tax is needed. They know we do not have enough staff to do the job we need to do. If we had more staff, we would be more efficient, timely and able to perform better coverage,"
Underwood also likes the Commissioners' idea that the sales tax could free up money for a new jail. "In the long run, it would save money to build a new jail, which is needed. We do not have enough jail space for prisoners. Right now, we can only hold eight prisoners at a time. We paid Thayer over $21,000 last year to take the overflow of prisoners," Underwood said.
In the past four years, Underwood said his budget had to be amended because of underfunding. "Our plate is over full. This tax would certainly take a big relief off of us and help the Sheriff's Department to better serve the county," said Underwood.
Commissioners explained they had spent the month of January going over the budgets turned in by each county department.
"We made some tweaks that have to be made every year," Ledgerwood said. The commissioners spent time with the departments to ensure that funds were being properly utilized. Commissioner Casey made the motion to approve the budget for 2013, which passed, with Casey and Ledgerwood voting for it. Southern Commissioner John Wrenfrow was not present for the meeting.
According to the commissioners, federal budget cuts are making it hard on the state, which leads to less money for counties.
The funding amount available in General Revenue for this year is $1,306,685.91, which is not nearly enough for what the county projects to spend. The county's estimated total expenditures for the year comes to $1,390,176.04, leaving the county 83,490.13 in the hole.
"Our federal government is in a lot of trouble. When they cut spending, it goes down to the state, which makes more cuts that fall back on counties with no where to send it. For example, our jail per diem; the state statute says we are to be reimbursed (if a prisoner is convicted) $37 a day, and now we are only getting
$19.57 a day," Ledgerwood explained.
Regardless of the negative numbers, Casey said, "We are fortunate to be in the shape we are in. Other small counties in our area are not in as good of shape as we are, financially."