Several oppose Cape Girardeau County Commission's plan to freeze disabilities tax

Friday, September 9, 2011

Cape Girardeau County commissioners fielded questions for more than an hour Thursday morning as several people spoke out against a proposal to roll a disabilities tax to zero.

They are concerned that a cut to a tax that funds activities of the Cape County Board for Developmental Disabilities would place the future of services for disabled people in the county in jeopardy.

Seventeen people attended the public hearing, including parents of disabled people served by VIP Industries, members of a group interested in starting a sheltered workshop, a representative of VIP and members of the disabilities board.

The commission recently sought legal opinion on its ability to vote to roll back the tax rate to zero for one year. The opinion from assistant prosecuting attorney Frank Miller was that the commission does have the right to do so according to Missouri law.

Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy has said he is in favor of rolling back the tax because too much revenue is going to attorney's fees related to lawsuits instead of benefiting the disabled. There are legal disputes between the disabilities board and VIP Industries, which provides sheltered workshops for disabled people.

Commissioners did not make a motion to vote to set the levy or state a date when a vote will be held, but they must cast a vote before Sept. 20. No members of the public in attendance spoke in favor of rolling back the levy.

Susan Wallis, an employee of VIP, said she supported the tax and is against lowering it because many people with disabilities are using the services now and will need them in the future.

Tracy said the board could still continue to function if the levy was rolled back to zero for one year.

"They could easily fund their obligations for the next year without being detrimental to the folks they are supposed to serve," he said.

The board has around $3.7 million, $2 million of which has been accumulated over the past 20 years. The board was created by a 1969 law and collects about $870,000 a year in property taxes and spends it through its contracts with VIP to provide sheltered workshops for disabled people. In the past several years, the board has paid between $400,000 and $600,000 to VIP, with the exception of the past year, when the board stopped paying over a dispute between the two entities.

Tracy and Commissioner Paul Koeper previously voiced concerns over the board's money going to pay attorney's fees associated with the dispute and the possibility of it going toward a settlement to VIP if a judge ruled in the company's favor. They also said they weren't impressed with the board's failure to show any plans for providing additional services in the county.

Tracy said next year when the levies are set, they will stand for two years because 2012 is an assessment year.

"From the commission's standpoint, we are responsible to the taxpayers, so this money is collected and whether it's spent for senior services or mental health or whatever it is, they expect the money to be spent the way they voted it to be spent," he said.

According to disabilities board chairman Larry Tidd, the board's reserve fund is specified as a building fund, but he said he didn't know whether it could now be used toward a workshop or residential facility.

"Originally when money was put back, the intent was to build a group home, but since then there have been other companies come in to do residence facilities," Tidd said.

Other tax levy rates have been rolled back to zero in the past, including the county's road and bridge tax, according to commissioners.

"I think it's erroneous to say the board can't save some money for something else," Royce Kessler said.

She said she knows other counties that have saved money to fund programs they need for disabled people, and it takes time to save the amount of money required to do so.

Two members of Blue Sky Center Inc., a group that wants to open another sheltered workshop in the county, also spoke in opposition of rolling back the tax.

"Lowering the tax is one thing, but cutting it to zero is doing away with a tax that the taxpayers voted in, so I don't understand why that's even a possibility," Traci Ritter said.

According to Ritter, more than 1,000 people in the state are waiting for sheltered employment services, including around 100 in Cape Girardeau County.

"We have people with disabilities who are depending on you to do the right thing," she told commissioners.

Ritter also said that for the first time in a long time that the disabilities board had members who were trying to be accountable for money from the tax.

Kevin Smith said he sees Tracy's position as an effort to control the board and stop another workshop from forming.

"In the last 15 months, the board has spent only $20,000 on legal fees. That doesn't justify rolling back $870,000," Smith said. "We're going to stay with it. We have to stand up for the disabled."

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

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1 Barton Square, Jackson, MO

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