Cape Girardeau County establishes property tax for first time in years

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Cape Girardeau County Commission on Thursday set tax levies for the 2012 tax year, including a general revenue property tax that hasn't been levied in years.

The county has had the ability to levy the tax, but hasn't done so after a 1979 vote in which county voters approved a sales tax with the promise of a 50 percent reduction of the general revenue property tax. The property tax rate had been set to zero in recent years, but commissioners decided to levy the tax this year after reports from Auditor Pete Frazier about declining revenue, in part due to loss of around $250,000 in taxes on out-of-state vehicle sales after a recent court decision said those taxes couldn't be collected.

Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy said in a news release the tax was needed because "of declining revenue that has eroded our reserve balance over the course of the recession."

He also said after Thursday's hearing that raising taxes is not an action the commissioners wanted to take but that measures to cut back spending included the possibility of opening county offices only four days per week.

"The thing about that would be is that people expect the county to be there five days a week," Tracy said. "So we will continue to look for ways to be financially prudent, but at the same time, we have to continue to provide services."

Tracy and Associate Commissioner Paul Koeper pointed to several moves they said the county has already been making in order to save money, such as retrofitting county facilities to be energy-efficient and not replacing personnel as they retire.

Koeper and Tracy both voted to approve passing the levy rate. Associate Commissioner Jay Purcell voted no.

Purcell said earlier this week that he would not, as he has not in the past, vote to approve what he calls an unbalanced county budget when officeholders have received raises in recent years. In 2011, Purcell was the only member of the county's salary commission who voted not to allow a salary raise of up to 3.5 percent for November's newly elected or re-elected county officeholders. A Southeast Missourian analysis of county officeholder salaries in 2011 also found their pay increased 68.3 percent, which was nearly double the rate of inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index, over a 14-year period.

Frazier estimates $10 to $30 will be added to what property owners are already paying in county taxes. The amount of the levy is $0.038 per $100 assessed valuation, which is expected to generate around $425,000 to help make up for a $250,000 deficiency between 2012's budgeted expenditures and anticipated revenue.

No one appeared at the public hearing to comment on the proposed rate.

Treasurer Roger Hudson released figures earlier this week that showed fairly flat sales tax revenue during the past five years and an increase in county spending, but officials say the expenditures are only higher due to the rising costs of goods and services. State statute allows the commission to enact the property tax levy when sales tax revenue is not sufficient, which acts as a "safety net," according to Frazier.

Tracy said approving the levy rate was an issue of sales tax revenue, not bad spending decisions.

"The county doesn't spend money frivolously. This isn't the GSA," he said, referring to an ongoing investigation into an alleged spending scandal involving the General Services Administration.

On Thursday, he described county revenue as a "three-legged stool."

"You've got money coming in from the county's services, from property tax and from sales tax. You need all three to provide a constant revenue stream. We were balancing on two of those legs for a while. Now we just can't anymore," he said.

Koeper said he decided to vote for the proposed rate after he ran rate comparisons with other counties and considered the declining state reimbursements for services over several years.

Frazier said the 2011 budget also had a deficiency that needed to be covered but that no action could be taken to enact the levy rate because commissioners may only increase one during an assessment year.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

1 Barton Square, Jackson, MO

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