Scott County retooling tax idea

Sunday, July 15, 2007

BENTON, Mo. -- Scott County commissioners have been in discussions about putting April's failed sales-tax initiative back on the ballot, though no decisions on what form the new initiative would take or what ballot it would be on have been made yet, the county's presiding commissioner said.

Last April an extension to the county's current half-cent sales tax for law enforcement was defeated 1,923 to 1,658, thanks in large part to "no" votes out of Sikeston precincts. County commissioners now have until Aug. 28 to decide whether to put the tax on the November ballot and what changes they might make to increase the chances of the extension's passage.

Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger has said an extension of the tax is needed or there will have to be cuts in government services. The current tax was passed in 2000 to pay for construction of a new jail and for equipment and staffing, bringing in about $1.6 million per year. Construction costs of the jail will be paid off next year.

But Burger said the added costs of the new facility and its staffing and equipment won't end just because the tax expires.

"We've got a jail that is filled to capacity," Burger said. "Any time you have a building that's going on 8 years old ... major repairs have to be done to it."

Scott County's jail holds about 125 inmates and is consistently operating at capacity, with the Sheriff's Department contracting smaller entities like Chaffee and Scott City to house some of the excess prisoners.

Burger said commissioners have already been talking with people and organizations around the county to feel out how voters would respond to seeing an extension placed on the ballot again. Several ideas for changing the tax initiative have been discussed -- revenue sharing with municipalities like Sikeston, where voters strongly rejected the tax; putting a sunset provision on the tax, something that was absent from the April ballot; or lowering the amount of the tax from a half-cent.

However, nothing is set in stone, Burger said.

The tax would have a sunset provision "without a doubt," Burger said. Many of those who voted against the tax in April cited the lack of a sunset provision as a key reason.

Everything else, Burger said, is "still to be determined," including whether the tax will be on the November ballot.

Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn said Burger has taken the initiative in the consideration of the tax, while Ziegenhorn himself has not put as much work into gauging public opinion about another ballot initiative. Ziegenhorn said he likes the idea of proposing a tax for less than the current half-cent, and having the tax go into general revenue, instead of being earmarked for law enforcement expenses.

Having taxes go to general revenue instead of law enforcement could help make the tax more appealing to voters in municipalities like Sikeston, where many worried the tax money wouldn't benefit them since Sikeston has its own police force and doesn't rely on county help as much as smaller cities.

As for whether he'll campaign for passage of a tax, Ziegenhorn said that depends on whether his constituency, located largely in Sikeston, supports the tax.

Sikeston Mayor Mike Marshall said he doesn't think voters in Ziegenhorn's hometown will support another tax extension.

"I think they'll have a tough time in Sikeston," Marshall said. "I don't think voters will go for that."

The Sikeston City Council came out with a resolution opposing the tax extension shortly before the April election following discussions about Sikeston's need for its own half-cent law enforcement tax. Marshall said he expects the city government to stay out of the fight this time around, and any city sales tax for law enforcement is years away from seeing the ballot. Shoppers in the Scott County part of Sikeston (the city is split between Scott and New Madrid counties) already pay the county's highest sales tax rate at 7.725 cents per dollar.

Marshall said Sikeston needs to meet its commitments associated with a one-cent sales tax approved in 2004 before it placing its own law enforcement tax on a ballot.

But Burger expresses some optimism about getting a tax extension passed before the current one expires. He was optimistic before the April vote, as well. The extension wouldn't increase taxes, Burger noted, just maintain the current level of sales tax.

"I think people as a whole are supportive," Burger said. "That doesn't mean it won't change when they get behind that curtain."

335-6611, extension 182

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