Officials campaign to extend sales tax

Monday, March 19, 2007

As the April election approaches, Scott County commissioners are engaging in a public-relations campaign, talking to county residents and municipal officials about their proposal to indefinitely extend the half-cent sales tax for law enforcement.

Over the past few weeks the county's three commissioners -- Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger, First District Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn and Second District Commissioner Ron McCormick -- have made their case for the tax to municipal boards throughout the county, and at other public opportunities.

Burger said the campaign is needed to sway voters and dispel the misunderstanding that the extension would institute a new tax on county residents.

The half-cent law enforcement sales tax was originally passed in 2000 to fund the construction and staffing of a new jail. The county replaced its aging 40-bed facility with a new 120-bed facility constructed in 2003. Bonds for the construction are paid for out of the tax money at a rate of about $700,000 per year -- a payment set to end in 2008, when the tax is set to expire.

Each year about $1.6 million is raised from the law enforcement tax. If the extension proposed on the April ballot is passed, that tax would continue indefinitely, with no sunset clause.

"We don't want to increase property taxes," Burger said. "Sales tax is the fairest. Everybody who travels through or buys something in the county is going to share it."

The sales tax is the best way to fund law enforcement without placing too much burden on consumers, commissioners say. Someone making $8,000 worth of retail purchases a year in Scott County would pay only $40 toward the law enforcement tax.

Burger and his colleagues say the extension of the tax is needed to maintain the quality of law enforcement the county currently enjoys. Last year the county spent $3.27 million in its law enforcement budget (which includes the budget of the prosecuting attorney's office) and transferred $1.493 million out of general revenue to help fund law enforcement. The half-cent sales tax made up $1.627 million of the law enforcement budget.

The law enforcement fund budget has risen slowly over the past three years. In 2005, $2.956 million was spent on law enforcement, a number that increased to $3.27 million in 2006. This year commissioners have approved $3.57 million for law enforcement.

The three years prior to 2005 show less of a pattern of increase: $2.9 million spent in 2002, $3.151 million in 2003 and about $2.852 million in 2004.

Without the extension of the tax and the $1.6 million it brings in, budget cuts will be required. Commissioners also hope to improve county roads, improve county government facilities and possibly expand the jail, which is already overcrowded.

Burger points out that the sales tax now paid by Scott County residents -- a half-cent for general revenue and a half-cent for law enforcement -- is equivalent to or less than other neighboring counties. Purchases made in Cape Girardeau County are subject to two half-cent sales taxes -- one for general revenue and one for roads and law enforcement. Last year Cape Girardeau County raised $6.123 million from its general revenue tax (2007 is the first year for the other half-cent tax).

Scott City Mayor Tim Porch supports the tax. He said he would be reluctant to support a new tax, but an extension to support law enforcement is needed.

"To extend something we've been paying for a good reason, I completely support it," Porch said.

In the county's largest city, Sikeston, Mayor Mike Marshall and city administrator Doug Friend say the city will take no official position.

Rumblings of opposition have come out of Sikeston, where some residents think they won't receive much benefit from the tax. Don Newton, owner of Kirby's Sandwich Shop, said he'll likely vote no on the extension. His primary reason is that the tax will not expire.

"I'm not for something that's perpetuating," said Newton.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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