'Prop B' would pay for more services in Perry Co.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008
AARON EISENHAUER ~ aeisenhauer@semissourian.com Autumn Johnson, 9, makes crafts with her mentor Mary Flentge on Tuesday, March 18, 2008. The mentor program is one of the programs that would benefit from proposition two.

When asked their concerns, Perry County residents identified four areas regarding youth: drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, high school dropout rate and declining family values. Since that survey in 1996, a community task force developed eight programs to address the problems identified, including a mentoring program.

But many of the grants used to fund the initiatives have been reduced or eliminated completely.

"Many are startup grants, where the programs will be funded for two or three years, and then you're supposed to find your own funding," said Jeanette Klobe, the coordinator of the task force.

Voters will be asked April 8 whether to support a countywide sales tax increase of one quarter of one percent. Half of the proceeds would help fund the youth programs, and the other half would help fund senior services provided by the county, which include meal delivery and transportation. The issue will be listed on the ballot as "Proposition B."

The Rev. John Chamness, a member of the task force, estimated the tax will generate between $523,000 and $578,000 a year. The tax would add one penny to a $4 purchase, or a quarter to a $100 purchase.

Senior services

The population in Perry County is growing older as baby boomers reach retirement age, Chamness 2,406 residents were older than 65. Nearly 320 were living below the poverty level.

AARON EISENHAUER ~ aeisenhauer@semissourian.com Autumn Johnson, 9, showed mentor Mary Flentge the flower that stuck to the end of her glue stick March 18 as they worked on an Easter door hanger.

A survey conducted from December to February of this year showed seniors need meals, transportation and help with paperwork. The county already provides many of the services, but would like to expand its offerings and be financially stable.

During fiscal year 2007, the Perry County Senior Center served nearly 200 meals a day to seniors, delivering about half of them to the homebound. Over the past six months, the number served has grown by about 12 people.

"The need is increasing continually, but the grants that have been coming through to pay for this kind of service to our seniors has already been cut by $1,100 and will probably be cut in the years ahead," Chamness said. He said private donations are not consistent or high enough to meet needs.

If the tax is passed, service would be extended outside of Perryville to the rest of the county, such as Altenburg.

Transportation services would also be expanded. Currently the service operates between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., but seniors often have doctor appointments later, Chamness said.

"Our seniors, in addition to needing a meal, transportation and help with paperwork, they need someone to stop in and check in on them. These are things that will be provided for if this sales tax passes," he said.

In Cape Girardeau County, a five cent property tax levy helps fund reduced-cost transportation, meals, an adult day care and home visits for the elderly. A resident with a house assessed at $100,000 pays $9.50 a year.

Bollinger County voters approved a 0.125 percent sales tax increase in 2006 to benefit senior citizens, half of what is proposed in Perry County. With Interstate 55 running through Perry County, officials are hoping that 25 percent of the revenue raised by the tax, if passed, would come from nonresidents purchasing food or gas.

Youth services

A mentoring program, programs for teens with substance abuse issues and school-based prevention programs would benefit from the tax. Tax funding would help pay for staff and workshop materials if grants diminish.

Last year, the mentoring program CHAMPS paired 81 "at-risk" children with mentors, who met with the children at least one hour a week. According to data provided by the task force, 62.5 percent of the students maintained a B average or improved their grades.

Ten students participated in a program designed to teach soft skills to dropouts looking for employment. Topics include understanding talents, learning what to expect during an interview and managing anger. "In talking to kids as to why they drop out, by and large, so many kids were into the partying scene," Klobe said.

As a result, weekly sessions were developed for students to educate teens and provide a support group for those addicted. About half of those who attend are court-mandated to do so.

Other programs include a conference held before prom to discourage drinking and driving, a prevention conference for eighth graders, Youth and Parent support meetings and a school-based life-skills program.

So far, the programs have had mixed results relating to the dropout rate and teen pregnancy rate.

The dropout rate has wavered, but remains unchanged since 2003, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In 2003, the rate was 5.2 percent; in 2007, it was 5.1 percent, above the 2007 Missouri average of 4.1 percent.

Teen births have increased from a rate of 47.7 to 52.1 between 2002 and 2006. The Missouri average was 45.6 in 2006, according to the annual report Kids Count. Rates are measured in births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19.

Nevertheless, organizers say the programs are working. "School grades have improved, the dropout rate has improved and family life has improved," Chamness said.

"If we want long-term change, we need to start looking at youth," Klobe said.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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