Bridging the revenue gap: Officials say enacting levy became necessary because sales tax revenue growth has remained flat

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Slow and steady wasn't going to win the race. It would not have been a safe bet to believe that sales tax revenue would make a big comeback in 2012 after a drop in 2008 and four consecutive years of inching forward, especially when it was paired against weaker state reimbursements for services. Timing was off for the proposal of a use tax. Tapping into emergency reserve funds should be saved for a more high-stakes situation, a true emergency, like an earthquake or tornado.

Considering those factors and several more, Cape Girardeau County's Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy and Associate Commissioner Paul Koeper in September voted to charge a property tax that will raise $425,000 for the county's general revenue budget. Associate Commissioner Jay Purcell voted against it.

County Auditor Pete Frazier and Treasurer Roger Hudson say a continually falling reserve balance, down to $154,659 this year as compared to $395,963 in 2010, for example, is a problem. Koeper said after discussions with Hudson and officeholders in other counties, he believes Cape Girardeau County needs a reserve balance of at least $750,000, if not closer to $1 million.

Well over half of the county's general revenue budget -- set at $11.5 million for fiscal year 2012 -- has historically come from sales tax revenue. In 1979, voters favored a reduction in property taxes in lieu of a county sales tax. Ballot language allowed for adjusting a property tax levy in the case additional revenue was required to meet the county's budget needs. Under the measure, a calculation would be done during an assessment year, and the levy could be raised with a vote of commissioners if budget needs made it necessary. From 1982 until this year, the levy sat at zero. Commissioners aren't sure why the levy wasn't raised sooner, since budget needs have grown and the unencumbered balance has fallen, showing a need for more tax revenue starting in 2001, officials say. It's possible previous officeholders didn't do the calculation.

"We think maybe it fell off the radar," Tracy said.

'I hate it'

This year, as sales tax revenue growth has again remained fairly flat, officials say enacting the levy became necessary.

"As a taxpayer, I hate it," Tracy said. "I don't want to see my taxes go up. But the county will not be put in jeopardy long term because I don't want to not do my job and not make that decision."

Total sales tax revenue for 2012 is projected to be up 2.4 percent from last year, but Koeper said that increase is not enough to cover rising expenses. In addition, the county doesn't want "to be at wit's end every month trying to figure out how to pay the bills," he said.

During strong years beginning in the 1980s and continuing into the past decade, commissioners set aside what eventually became the county's $5 million emergency fund.

Koeper and Tracy say using some of those emergency funds was considered, but the current revenue issue doesn't constitute a "real emergency."

"I guess that is something we could have done," Koeper said. "But you know, if something happens, we could wait two years to be reimbursed by [state and federal governments] and then we're out that money for a long time. There's really no place else for us to turn."

Purcell said he feels the real problem in county government spending is the raises the salary commission -- made up of the officeholders -- has approved for their positions over the years.

Frazier's letter to commissioners containing a recommendation to set the levy at $0.038 per $100 of assessed valuation said the revenue would help offset a projected deficiency of $250,000 between the projected expenditures and revenue in 2012.

"We have been spending more than we have been bringing in, and there is a deficit," Purcell said. "Deficit spending is wrong. To me this is just the same old story. It's how they raise taxes incrementally."

Smaller payments

Decreasing reimbursements from the state are another budgetary issue for many local governments. Since he took office in 2009, Koeper said, reimbursements have fallen for mandated services. "What we deal with are things we are told we have to take care of, but then aren't left with anything to do it with," he said.

Missouri's per-parcel funding for the county assessor's office has fallen from around $7 to $3, Koeper said. Reimbursements to the county jail for housing inmates who face state charges are $19.58 per prisoner per day, down from more than $22 in 2009.

County officials throughout Missouri "are ready to take these guys up to Jeff City and chain them to a fence," Koeper said.

In order to offset some of that lost revenue, Cape Girardeau County recently invested $300,000 to increase energy efficiency in the jail after a period of rising utility costs.

In addition, a judicial decision earlier this year eliminated the lawful collection of property taxes on out-of-state vehicle purchases. That decision will cost the county government an estimated $250,000 annually.

Discussions by commissioners in biweekly meetings often cover how to best deal with rising costs, even small ones. A policy change for indigent burials, for example, was made over the summer when the fund dried up due to an increasing number of people who died with no assets and whose families couldn't afford a burial.

Frugality in most facets of county government spending, say Koeper and Tracy, is at an all-time high. Consolidation of staff duties upon retirements or resignations has taken place in nearly every department. Employees are more often being trained as a "utility," according to Tracy, meaning they can work in more than one role between offices, switching from the collector's office to the clerk's office during busy times. In the coming year, commissioners will consider whether to make changes to county employees' health insurance plans as a way to save more. Cutting pensions is also not off the table, he said.

Tracy said there is not a hiring freeze ongoing in county government but that it is running like any business in hard economic times.

Rising salaries for officeholders is a trend Tracy said is going away, starting with the commission's most recent vote, when he did not approve raising salaries the full amount allowed by law and instead voted for a 1.5 percent increase.

He said he hopes when the public considers the amount of officeholders' salaries -- $72,000 per year -- they will realize that there are rules in place that require all the salaries to rise to the same level, that the current officeholders have taken on extra duties the same as staff and that government works differently than private business.

"We don't get to give bonuses when revenue is rolling in," he said.

"When the economy is flying high, nobody looks at the county's officeholders and says 'They are making too much,' but then when it's not, we are in the middle of everything," he said. Tracy said he is following the direction of the statute on what the county must do.

He said counties can't adjust their budgeted expenditures down for other elected offices once the budgets are passed, but that the officeholders annually return unspent funds to the budget.

The "uncollected" tax revenue in prior years when commissioners voted not to raise the percent from zero has hurt the county's finances, he said, and commissioners' action to enact the levy this year will prevent further damage and pay off in the long run.

"I know there are a lot of people that say, 'it doesn't matter, you raised taxes,'" he said. "Well, it's what the voters told us to do."

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

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