Down by the old mill (tax) stream

Monday, December 8, 2008

Another resignation has arrived from a Cape Girardeau County Mental Health Mill Tax Board member. Dr. Janna Tuck's letter to the Cape Girardeau County Commission, filed Thursday, says her medical practice consumes so much of her time that she does not have enough left for board service.

County officials are currently reviewing the books for the board, not because they are concerned the money was mishandled, Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said, but because the last time county Auditor David Ludwig audited those books was in 2005. That was too long ago, according to a countywide audit conducted earlier this year by Van de Ven LLC, which called for tighter internal controls.

Board member Bonnie Chaudoir told me volunteering on the mental health mill tax board is a way to keep herself busy and give back to the community since her husband died. She said the work is complex, however, and grant meetings, which start after 3 p.m., often last until 9.

But she couldn't tell me the origin of the word "mill," so I went looking. County Collector Diane Diebold said it's a frequently asked question. She thought it might have something to do with taxes levied on farmers who brought grain to mills and that sounded pretty plausible.

Mill taxes now refer to a form of property tax but were once a kind of sales tax. A mill is equal to one-tenth of a penny. Missouri's first mill tax was approved in 1935. The mill tax created a problem in that shop owners couldn't exactly return change on fractions of pennies. As a result, the state issued receipts in the form of discs, initially made of lead, to stimulate Missouri's lead industry, but later made of aluminum, wood, fiber, plastic or rubber.

It was in 1935 that Missouri Auditor Forrest Smith went to Washington, D.C., asking for the tokens, according to a Time Magazine story. The story said President Franklin Roosevelt sketched a design, but when U.S. Rep. Lloyd Thurston of Osceola, Iowa, saw the bill to make the tokens, he suggest lawmakers "should be required to carry a pound of shingle nails in his pocket for 30 days" before voting. The bill passed.

The tokens were not popular -- imagine having to carry around what is essentially a separate form of currency, and in fractions of pennies no less -- and each of the 12 states using this system had a different type of token. Old mill tax tokens, by the way, are collectible and have been sold online for as little as spare change to as much as $100.

As for the song, "Down by the Old Mill Stream," credit Tell Taylor, musician, actor and vaudevillian, who died in 1937. His famous sentimental song of true love was penned in 1908 as he whiled away the day near the Misamore Mill stream, properly named the Blanchard River, where he swam as a child in Hancock County, Ohio. Since being published in 1910, 5 million copies of the song -- a favorite among barbershop quartets -- have been sold. This information has no relevance to anything in Missouri, except the song has been stuck in my head since I started writing the column early last week.


Folks in Scott County have an opportunity to speak up -- for or against -- a half-cent retail sales tax being proposed by the Scott County Commission. Presiding Commissioner Jamie Berger says the tax will eliminate the county's portion of property and real estate taxes, about $400,000. City and school taxes will still apply. The new tax is expected to add $1.6 million a year to the county's general revenue fund, Berger said. The one-hour public hearing is at 6 p.m. today at the Scott County Courthouse, 131 S. Winchester St. in Benton, Mo.

Questions, suggestions or tips for Lost on Main Street? E-mail pmcnichol@semissourian.com or call 573-388-3646.

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