County officials promote Proposition 1 at town meeting

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

GORDONVILLE -- Lower property taxes, better roads and stronger law enforcement are the top selling points county officials used Tuesday evening to promote Proposition 1 at a town meeting at Zion United Methodist Church.

But when the audience got a chance to respond, they wanted to know when new rules for making paving decisions would be ready, why deputy sheriffs need a pay hike and how soon a citizen's advisory board would begin work.

With four weeks to go before the Aug. 8 election, communicating a positive assessment of the half-cent sales tax increase is becoming crucial. The meeting Tuesday was the first time county commissioners and Sheriff John Jordan have pitched the tax measure to a general audience.

The meeting is one of a series of events, most before civic or business groups, designed to elicit support for the proposal to increase spending on roads and law enforcement by $3.1 million.

50 people in attendance

About 50 people attended the meeting. Commissioner Jay Purcell took on the job of explaining the proposal, which would replace property taxes dedicated to roads with a half-cent sales tax.

The best way to look at Proposition 1, Purcell said, is to decide if a sales tax hike will cost more than continuing the property tax. If the road property tax costs an individual $100 annually, he said, that same person would have to spend $20,000 a year on taxable goods to pay the same amount of tax.

"I ask each and every one of our citizens to make a decision based on your spending habits," Purcell said.

The tax measure would raise about $5.9 million the first year. Of that amount, about $3.1 million represents new revenue available after property tax funds are replaced. The new spending would be split between the sheriff's department for raises and expansion and county road improvements for paving and dust control.

Jordan promoted his request for new money by comparing the number of patrolling deputies to the number of police in Cape Girardeau -- each deputy protects about twice as many residents as a Cape Girardeau police officer -- and by pointing out that pay and benefits lag behind Cape Girardeau and Jackson.

The Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department, Jordan said, "has a reputation as a training ground for other law enforcement agencies."

In all, he said, he's made 173 personnel changes in the department since taking over as sheriff in 1994. Passage of the tax, he said, "would allow us to stop the bleeding."

Paving issues dominant

The paving issues continue to dominate discussion of the tax. Cape Girardeau County paves roads based on landowners securing easements from their neighbors, then sending a petition to the county. If a landowner balks at providing the easement, the road doesn't get paved.

"It just seems funny to me that getting a county road paved can be held up by a signature," said Mark Koerber, who lives along County Road 231.

That difficulty is hard to overcome, Commissioner Larry Bock said. On each road paved, the county seeks a 60-foot-wide easement. Without that space, he said, the roads can't be built correctly.

And forcing reluctant landowners to provide the easements could cause resentments, he said.

"We don't want to do eminent domain," he said. "Once we do that, shouldn't everybody get paid for their right of way?"

On Monday, the commissioners approved a proposal to create a Citizens County Road Advisory Board. Stanley Sievers, who lives along County Road 335, wanted to know when the board would begin work. He suggested that a new policy for paving should be ready before voters go to the polls.

"I am not interested in waiting another three to six months," he said. Sievers owns land along County Road 341 and has refused to grant an easement.

Sievers also said he's not sure how he will vote.

The structure of the board will be set soon, Purcell said, and appointments would come soon afterward. And the board will have a strong voice, he said.

"What politician is going to appoint a board of citizens and not listen to them? That would be political suicide," he said.

But Charles Ahrens and Dyke Marble, who both live along County Road 373, said they're ready to vote for Proposition 1. Ahrens said County Road 373 is dangerous and he'd like to see it paved. He's tried in the past to get the easements signed but was opposed by a landowner.

"My property tax is going to be a lot more than my sales tax would be," Ahrens said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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