Bill gives certain counties expanded powers

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Officials in the three Southeast Missouri counties that could soon have more powerful local governments say residents shouldn't expect to see a flood of new laws.

The Missouri Legislature last week gave final approval to a bill giving 21 of the state's 114 counties expanded authority to enact ordinances. Cape Girar-deau, New Madrid and St. Francois counties would be the only ones in the area affected should Gov. Bob Holden sign it into law.

Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said the measure will allow the state's larger counties to address many local issues on their own without having to involve state lawmakers, which under current law is often required. He stressed that the bill wouldn't allow the commission to unilaterally impose county-wide planning and zoning, a controversial plan voters rejected in 2000.

"It gives us more control over problems," Jones said. "The bill spells out the areas of responsibility. This is not a replacement for planning and zoning."

As president of the Missouri Association of Counties, Jones lobbied lawmakers for the expanded powers during the recent legislative session, which ended Friday.

An example of when the Cape Girardeau County Commission might have used the power in the past involved a land developer whose septic system routinely overflowed into a county ditch.

"When it rained, it drained into his neighbors' yards, and they were in an uproar, but we couldn't do a thing about it," Jones said. "Now, we can if the governor signs the bill."

New Madrid County Commissioner Clyde Hawes said having the option to enact ordinances could prove useful, though he doesn't expect the commission would exercise it often.

"I'd like for the county to have more power allowed at times," Hawes said. "But I don't like anything mandated."

The affected counties wouldn't be required to exercise the new powers, which would broadly extend to issues including nuisance abatement, roads, emergency management, stormwater control and economic development.

County ordinances could not conflict with state law. City ordinances would trump county laws within municipal boundaries.

St. Francois County Presiding Commissioner Jim Henson was surprised but pleased to learn that the bill had passed.

"We think it is going to be a big help," Henson said. "We had given up on it a month ago. It seemed to be a dead issue."

The measure cleared the legislature mere minutes before the mandatory deadline for adjournment. It had languished for weeks in the Senate because of concerns about a massive expansion of county powers.

Currently, only the three first-class Missouri counties with charter forms of government -- St. Louis, St. Charles and Jackson -- have ordinance power. The original bill would have extended to the authority to the remaining 111 counties.

However, the Senate changed the measure so it would apply only to the more populous counties -- those of the first, second and fourth classifications. Class is determined by a county's total assessed valuation. Fourth-class status is a special subcategory of second-class counties.

Missouri's 90 third-class counties were left out of the bill. However, a separate measure sent to the governor would give them the power to pass ordinances setting speed limits on county roads.

Hawes, the New Madrid County commissioner, said lawmakers should have extended the broader ordinance privilege to all counties.

"It doesn't seem fair to omit them," Hawes said. "I am disappointed third-class counties were left out."

State Rep. Peter Myers, R-Sikeston, was among the few opponents of the bill. Though he represents small portions of Cape Girardeau and New Madrid counties, he felt Scott County, which comprises the bulk of his district, deserved the same consideration.

"Scott County struggles, and I thought if they were not going to include my county, I was not going to vote for it," Myers said.

Myers said he would be supportive if the counties association asks the legislature to extend ordinance powers to third-class counties next year.

The bill is HB 267.

Staff reporter Bob Miller contributed to this report.

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