Counties' powers need expansion, says Cape official

Friday, February 14, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Too often when elected officials in most Missouri counties have a local problem that requires action, they need the state legislature's approval to get it done, Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones told a House committee on Thursday.

"The Missouri General Assembly should not be forced to micromanage counties from Jefferson City because counties lack the local authority to deal with local matters," Jones said.

Jones testified before the House Local Government Committee on a bill that would give all Missouri counties the power to enact local ordinances and regulations. Jones is also president of the Missouri Association of Counties, which endorses the measure. No one testified in opposition.

At present, only first-class counties with charter forms of government -- those in the state's urban areas -- have unbridled ordinance authority. While it holds first-class status, Cape Girardeau County is approximately 17,000 residents short of the minimum population of 85,000 needed to even ask voters to consider a county charter.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Todd Smith, said most of the state statutes governing county operations date to the 1920s and 1930s. Times have changed and counties need more flexibility, said Smith, R-Sedalia.

Shaky legal ground

During his tenure as Pettis County presiding commissioner, Smith said his county with fourth-class governing status occasionally invoked its statutory power to protect the public health as a way to deal with problems such as illegal trash dumps. However, he admits the county was on shaky legal ground.

"It really was a stretch but fortunately no one ever challenged us," Smith said. "I don't know if it would have stood up in court if they had."

The ordinance authority of counties would not be absolute under the bill. Counties could not enact regulations contrary to or prohibited by state law, and the General Assembly would still retain the power to override county actions.

Jones said Cape Girardeau County has less control over local matters than small towns within its borders such as Allenville and Gordonville. Having ordinance authority would have helped the county commission deal with past problems such as rat infestations, uncovered wells and cell phone towers erected without a "fall zone" to protect nearby homes from damage in the event of a collapse, Jones said.

Cape Girardeau County officials' unsuccessful effort to pass a countywide planning and zoning ordinance in 2000 exemplifies one area in which first-class counties do maintain ordinance power.

State Rep. Bob Johnson, the committee chairman, suggested that a better solution might be to allow all counties -- regardless of size or classification -- to adopt county charters with voter approval. That would allow voters of each county -- and not state lawmakers -- to determine if their commissioners should have ordinance power, said Johnson, R-Lee's Summit.

Some county officials who testified were lukewarm about the bill's potential impact in their counties.

State Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, is a co-sponsor of the bill, HB 267.

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