Sales tax extension won't be on Nov. ballot

Monday, August 27, 2007

BENTON, Mo. -- Scott County commissioners have decided not to ask voters for an extension of the half-cent sales tax for law enforcement this November.

Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said Thursday that, for the time being, the county will not ask voters to renew the tax that expires Sept. 30, 2008. The deadline for placing items on the November ballot is Tuesday.

Instead, the county will evaluate the financial situation in its law enforcement and general revenue funds when the commission and the county clerk's office begins crafting the county budget in January.

The commission tried to extend the tax, originally passed in 2000 to fund construction and staffing of a new jail, during the April election. But the tax extension was defeated 1,923 to 1,658, with precincts in Sikeston coming out heavily against the tax, with voters citing the lack of a sunset provision and, in Sikeston, a belief that the money from the tax would do little for those living in the county's largest city.

"It was not the time to bring it back this soon, especially with what everybody said," said Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn. "They weren't in favor of it."

The tax brings in about $1.6 million every year for law enforcement. Between $750,000 and $780,000 of the tax each year goes to pay off the bonds that financed construction of the new jail, with the rest going to fund county law enforcement, Burger said. The county will pay its last bond payment next year. If the tax is allowed to expire, the county will be left with about $800,000 less in funds applied to law enforcement on a yearly basis.

With the tax or without it, Sheriff Rick Walter said his department will continue to carry out its duties.

"We're going to have to function one way or the other, with or without the tax," Walter said. "Right now, the people have said no. If they want us to look for other ways of making it work, that's what we're going to do."

Walter said he's already starting to look for ways to trim the fat out of the law enforcement budget. When a deputy recently left to take a better paying job elsewhere, Walter said he decided to eliminate the position and shift other deputies' duties to cover that work. A deputy's starting salary is $27,000, plus benefits. Walter said the department may also look at using more part-time workers -- police from county cities looking to supplement their income.

But Walter said he won't be sure how money can be saved until the budget review comes in January.

Ziegenhorn, who represents Sikeston and the rest of southern Scott County, said waiting to evaluate the budget before asking for the tax extension again is the right thing to do. Ziegenhorn initially supported the tax in the run up to the April election, withdrew that support after it became clear his constituents didn't support the tax. However, Ziegenhorn never campaigned against passage of the tax, though the Sikeston city council passed a resolution of opposition just before the election.

Ziegenhorn said he won't support bringing the tax question back in the same form it appeared on the April ballot. But if the budget review finds the county will be strapped for cash, Ziegenhorn said he would support exploring a general revenue tax.

The ideal situation would be to balance the budget without needing the $1.6 million the tax brings in, Ziegenhorn said,

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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