Sales tax passes by 131 votes

Wednesday, August 9, 2006
Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones, center, checked vote totals for Proposition 1 at the Cape Girardeau County Administration Building in Jackson on Tuesday. (Don Frazier)

Cape Girardeau County voters narrowly approved a proposed half-cent sales tax Tuesday in an election that had all three county commissioners eagerly awaiting returns from every precinct.

All three commissioners and Sheriff John Jordan, who together led the public relations campaign for the tax, agreed Proposition 1 would have lost heavily if the vote had taken place three weeks ago.

In the end, the tax was approved by a mere 131 votes, with 4,888 voters, or 50.7 percent, saying yes to the tax and 4,757, or 49.3 percent, voting against.

"It darn sure isn't a mandate of the people," Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said as the tax clung narrowly to enough votes for passage. "We are going to have to take some very cautious steps."

The tax proposal was the first for county government in 24 years. It was the most ambitious effort of county government since an attempt in 2000 to win approval for planning and zoning.

Proposition 1 imposes an extra half-cent tax on all sales in Cape Girardeau County effective Jan. 1. The measure is coupled with a cut in property taxes that would have ended the county and Cape Special Road District levies.

The general revenue tax will raise about $5.9 million a year. After replacing money lost because of the property tax cut, the county will have about $3.1 million annually to split between road paving and law enforcement.

When commissioners decided in late May to put the tax on the ballot, they didn't have a list of roads that would be paved with the extra money and their rules for setting priorities for paving projects were under attack.

At a public hearing June 19, a contingent angry about dust clouds on gravel roads demanded that additional thought be given to setting some of the tax money aside for dust abatement.

Since then, at almost two dozen meetings with service clubs and in public meetings, commissioners have sought to allay public distrust and promise an open process for decision making.

A County Road and Bridge Advisory Commission, with a member from each of the 10 county townships and one at-large member, will guide that process.

"We didn't have a plan," Jones said. "Our feet were held to the fire and we developed a plan plenty quick."

Commissioner Larry Bock, who oversees the road program, said the advisory panel will have a narrow focus because commissioners are ultimately responsible for road building decisions.

The tax proposal lost in just a handful of precincts, but the margin in each was narrow. The winning margin was built in rural precincts where voters have a personal stake in the roads that will be paved and the extra law enforcement the tax will provide.

For the law enforcement portion, the tax means every county deputy will get a raise that will put them on a parity with Cape Girardeau Police Department officers. Jordan will also have the ability to hire 10 additional staff members, including five patrol deputies.

Voters interviewed after casting ballots gave a variety of reasons for making their decision. Those who were opposed expressed a wariness about whether the money would be used as promised. Supporters of the tax said they were convinced that sheriff's deputies are underpaid and that better county roads would strengthen the entire regional economy.

Several voters said they would have supported the tax if it had taken a smaller bite out of their wallets and been dedicated solely for law enforcement.

"I'd like to support our sheriff's department, but there are some other deals we can't get behind," Ron Martin said after voting in Delta.

The county commission's offer to give Jackson an extra $25,000 from the tax revenue was the clincher, Martin said. "That's a bribe. That is paying for votes."

A small portion of the county property tax for roads is distributed to cities based on how much of the tax comes from within their borders. Jackson sued the county over the money and won. Commissioners promised to continue making payments to Jackson and, if the board of aldermen endorsed the Proposition 1, increase the amount. The board turned down the request.

Lonnie and Loretta Harris, who also voted in Delta, said they both favored the tax. The chance to capture extra tax revenue from visitors to Cape Girardeau County made the difference for Lonnie Harris.

"It means everybody going down the Interstate who is buying something at Wal-Mart has to contribute," he said.

At the Arena Building in Cape Girardeau, Frank Sitze said he voted against Proposition 1 because he believes taxes are too high.

And Charmagne Schneider said she opposed the tax because sales taxes aren't fair. "I think it affects the lower-income people inequitably," she said.

Some opponents of the tax have questioned why residents of Cape Girardeau and Jackson should pay to upgrade rural roads. But Michael Annis of Cape Girardeau said he was convinced the tax was a good idea for the whole area.

"If the county does what they say they will do, it will be good for the county," he said. "What is good for the county will be good for the city and good for us all."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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