Watching the money

Friday, February 3, 2006

In many counties in rural Missouri -- that's most of the state's 114 counties -- the addition of a few thousand dollars of expense can put cash-strapped county governments in a bind. At a meeting last week of county commissioners from several Southeast Missouri counties, that was a major topic.

Although the state constitution's Hancock Amendment requires legislative mandates on local governments to include funding to cover the costs of those mandates, that's not always the way it works. The Missouri Association of Counties has long been the first line of defense in situations like this.

Of particular concern to the commissioners last week were expenses such as housing state prisoners who are put in county jails during court hearings and so forth. The commissioners, many of them from third- and fourth-class counties -- the smallest -- expressed concerns about a requirement to pay for state audits. Declining revenue from taxes on telephones to pay for 911 emergency systems was another topic raised, with commissioners citing the fact that mobile-phone users don't pay the 911 tax. And the loss of sales-tax revenue on Internet sales, long a thorn for several counties in Southeast Missouri, continues to be a concern. Some commissioners would like Missourians to adopt a use tax for Internet sales, which would generate revenue from out-of-state retailers with Internet sales in Missouri.

Keeping track of spending is a key role for county commissioners. Taxpayers expect efficient local government at the lowest possible cost. Topics raised at last week's meeting indicate officials are on their toes.

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