County, Jackson await lawyer's opinion

Saturday, October 4, 2003

A tax dispute that could involve several hundred thousand dollars is stuck in neutral as Cape Girardeau County and Jackson city officials wait to hear from an independent lawyer hired by the county.

Almost two months after Jackson's mayor and the county presiding commissioner met privately, and about three months after the state attorney general ruled in favor of Jackson, the commission is waiting to hear back from William McCullah, a Forsyth, Mo., lawyer, before agreeing that it does, indeed, owe the city about $80,000 per year from the county's road and bridge tax fund.

The conflict so far has been a polite one, but officials on both sides have said the matter could wind up in court.

Municipalities and counties across the state are watching to see whether the county should have to pay the city of Jackson 25 percent of the revenue it collects from the town. The county and the city interpret the state law differently. Ultimately, the dispute hinges on the word "special" and whether that applies to the county road and bridge tax because those taxes go specifically toward roads and bridges, or whether it applies only to special taxes that require a vote.

So far, the commission has based its opinion on the advice of county prosecutor Morley Swingle.

In early August, Jackson Mayor Paul Sander and Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones met to discuss the issue. Jones told Sander he needed to find out more information regarding the matter.

Several months ago, the city and the county asked the state attorney general's office to form an opinion on the matter and the attorney general sided with Jackson.

But that opinion was not enough to persuade the commission to hand over $80,000 -- the equivalent of replacing two bridges -- to the city of Jackson.

The county commission does not know when it will hear back from McCullah on this issue. McCullah was out of town and could not be reached Thursday or Friday.

"Right now, what we've got is two attorneys' opinions that are different," Jones said. "This situation has long-term effects, and we don't want to enter into it hastily."

At Thursday's commission meeting, none of the three commissioners would commit to saying they would begin paying Jackson if McCullah's opinion was the same as that of the attorney general's office.

"We'll have to wait and see what it is," said commissioner Larry Bock. "We need to remember these are just opinions. No one has found a court ruling on this matter."

Owed to residents

Currently, the county spends no money on roads and streets inside the city limits, although Jackson taxpayers contribute $319,000 to the county's road and bridge fund.

Sander said he believes the city council owes it to the residents of Jackson to pursue money that it should rightfully collect.

However, he said the city has no specific time frame as to when it needs to hear back from the commission, although he would like to see the matter resolved as soon as possible.

"He was interested in finding out more about a couple issues, and that was fine with me," Sander said of Jones.

Jefferson City and Cole County recently settled a similar dispute after hearing the attorney general's opinion. Cole County joined Jackson and Cape Girardeau County in seeking the opinion. In 1997, Cole County became a first-class county, meaning it would be eligible for the 25 percent payback. In 2002, the county discovered the statute and began paying Jefferson City 25 percent. But Jefferson City said it should be able to collect back payments.

After the attorney general's opinion came out, Jefferson City and the county agreed on a $1 million settlement, paid at $100,000 for the next 10 years.

Sander said there has been little discussion regarding whether Jackson would ask for back payments. Cape Girardeau County achieved first-class status in 1997, meaning Jackson could be looking at more than $500,000 lost over those years.

"Basically, we want to find out if we are owed the money," Sander said. "Once we find out we are, that would be the proper time to discuss how much we're owed. We do feel like at this point, unless we're missing something, the citizens of Jackson have some of these funds coming to them and my opinion is that we would be remiss if we didn't try to get what we have coming."

Of the 14 first-class counties that do not have a charter form of government, only Cape Girardeau and Callaway counties do not share road and bridge revenue with their incorporated towns. Callaway County, which became a first-class county this year, is holding back money in an escrow account until the matter is settled here.

Some counties do not pay for road upkeep with road and bridge property tax collections. Instead, they pay for road maintenance with sales taxes.

Cape Girardeau lies within a special road district. Residents there do not pay county road and bridge taxes.


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