Cape Girardeau County Commissioners defend tax collection

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Collecting property taxes this fall for roads doesn't violate promises made to voters during the campaign that led to passage of a half-cent sales tax, Cape Girardeau County commissioners and former auditor Weldon Macke said during a meeting Monday.

The discussion focused on a Southeast Missourian editorial published Sept. 3 that said the county has enough money to operate without the property tax revenue the county will collect at the end of the year. Passage of the sales tax will eliminate property taxes collected by the county for roads.

The editorial questioned whether collecting the property taxes while instituting the sales tax amounts to double taxation and suggested that collecting the tax, which will be spent after consumers start paying the sales tax, could be seen as "a failure to keep the commitment many voters thought they were supporting."

The editorial, Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said, has resulted in "a lot of headaches and chaos," with dozens of constituents calling with complaints.

"If the editorial board was in a football game, I would flag them for unsportsmanlike conduct," Jones said.

Macke, acknowledged early in the sales tax campaign as the architect of the proposal, said he has been verbally accosted at his church as a liar. "There needs to be an apology, and it should be on the front page," Macke said.

A public hearing on the proposed property tax rate will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in the commission chambers in Jackson.

County voters approved Proposition 1 by a 131-vote margin on Aug. 8. The tax, which will be charged on all taxable sales in Cape Girardeau County, takes effect Jan. 1. Property taxes are due on Dec. 31. Prior to the election, commissioners said this year would be the last year the property tax is collected.

Based on the revenue generated by the current county sales tax, the new sales tax is projected to bring in more than $6 million annually. That money will be used to replace the revenue from property taxes.

The road and bridge property tax, set at the rate of 23.61 cents per $100 assessed value, raises about $800,000 annually for the county highway department. The Cape Special Road District, which is also planning to do without its property tax in future years, levies a tax of 26.81 cents per $100 assessed value that raises about $1.4 million. The county, under state law, keeps 20 percent of the property tax revenue raised in the Cape Special Road District.

The county's total, about $1.1 million in this year's budget, pays for operations of the county highway department, including payroll, material and equipment costs for maintaining county roads.

The promises that accompanied Proposition 1 included setting aside $1.4 million for the Cape Special Road District, which means allowing the district to keep the $280,000 that would otherwise go to the county. Commissioners made that promise to persuade the Cape Special Road District to eliminate its tax levy, which will also be paid by property owners for the last time this fall.

Commissioners also promised to keep giving Jackson and other incorporated towns a share of the sales tax revenue equal to the amount state law required the county to give those towns out of the property tax.

The remaining funds, about $3.1 million, are earmarked for paving county roads as well as more deputies and better pay for the sheriff's department.

"We are not doing double taxation," Jones said Monday. "We are not cheating the public."

Commissioner Jay Purcell agreed. "These are two separate taxes for two separate time periods."

According to Maura Browning, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Revenue, Cape Girardeau County should see the first payments of revenue generated by the new tax in March. The state collects all sales taxes and then sends monthly payments to local governments.

During the discussion, commissioners said they would be spending some of the new tax money during 2007 to keep promises for paving and to increase pay in the sheriff's department.

But raises for deputies won't take effect Jan. 1, Jones said.

Rather than focus on when each tax dollar would be spent, Purcell said, voters should worry about whether the big promises of paving roads and better law enforcement are kept. "The big issue for me is to pave the roads when we said we would," he said.

County Clerk Rodney Miller said the issue for him was whether the property tax collections this fall violate promises to voters. "The big issue is whether you have lied to the public, and you haven't."

In other business, the commission discussed how to decide who will be named to the County Road and Bridge Advisory Board. Applications are due by Friday for the 11-member board.

So far, the commission has received 31 applications. The board will have 10 members chosen from the townships of Cape Girardeau County and an at-large member. County highway administrator Scott Bechtold will have a non-voting seat on the board.

Commissioners must decide whether to evaluate applicants based on questionnaires each must fill out or whether to conduct interviews. "If we interview 30 people, that would weigh us down," Jones said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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