Counties hope to avoid changes in legal status

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Several Missouri counties are laying the groundwork to change their legal classifications as early as 2005, but officials in some are hopeful the law will be revised next year to prevent that from happening.

The Missouri Legislature passed such a bill in the spring, but Gov. Bob Holden vetoed it because he deemed unconstitutional a provision unrelated to the classification issue. The Senate fell one vote short of mustering the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto earlier this month.

Four counties, including Butler and Scott, are slated to change classifications on Jan. 1, 2005. Another 11 counties, among them Stoddard and St. Francois, are in holding patterns and could follow suit by 2009. Unless the law is changed, more counties are expected to move up in classification in the coming years.

The increased costs to taxpayers that would accompany a move to higher legal status is a primary reason the Missouri Association of Counties and its members are seeking legislative action.

Changing classes

Butler and Scott counties are both scheduled to move from third class to second class. One of the requirements for second-class counties is that they have elected county auditors. Third-class counties do not have their own auditors.

"With the cost of adding that person, setting up the office and hiring staff, we are looking at $100,000 a year," said Butler County Eastern District Commissioner Robert Myers.

Since the bill that would have allowed them to remain third class wasn't enacted this year, Butler and Scott counties will, for the time being, have to move ahead with elections for auditor next year. However, if the legislature passes a bill Holden finds acceptable, the need for such elections would be rendered moot.

Classification is determined by a county's total assessed property value. First-class counties must have an assessed valuation of at least $450 million. A minimum of $300 million in assessed valuation moves a county to second-class status.

Counties with total assessed property values under $300 million are third-class, except for a couple of fourth-class counties. The latter classification consists of former second-class counties that experienced declines in assessed valuation that would have dropped them down to third class. Fourth-class counties operate under second-class status.

The minimum valuations were last revised in 1988.

The bill Holden rejected would have set the limit for becoming first class at $600 million and raised the bar for second class to $450 million. Holden vetoed the bill because it would have authorized counties to establish "crime reduction funds" financed by court fees paid by criminal defendants. The governor said that would have violated the constitutional requirement that proceeds from criminal cases go to education.

Currently, 17 counties are first-class counties; six are second-class; 89 are third-class; and two are fourth-class.

To move up in classification, a county must have the assessed valuation of the next higher group for five consecutive years. The change then takes place with the start of the calendar year following the next general election.

Waiting period

Butler and Scott counties completed their five-year holding patterns in 2002. St. Francois County's waiting period ends in 2005, with its move from second class to first class slated for 2007. Stoddard County completes its five years at the end of 2006, with a move from third class to second class scheduled for 2009.

Stoddard County Presiding Commissioner Greg Mathis said the commission opposes any change.

"We are all in favor of keeping everything status quo," Mathis said. "There is no benefit to Stoddard County going second class."

Such a move would force the county to abandon its township form of government. Stoddard County and the handful like it are divided into townships that have their own local governing boards and are primarily responsible for road maintenance. Critics of the township system call it inefficient and outdated.

"For all its faults, people in Stoddard County still like it," Mathis said.

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