Before the latest recession -- now often referred to by Cape Girardeau County officeholders as "the good ol' days," -- expenditures for county government were increasing each year.
Money to cover the spending was there.
Sales-tax revenue was growing annually.
And reimbursements for services provided by the county and required by the state were holding steady, or increasing with need.
None of these are happening now. It's quite the opposite, and for the first time since 1982, commissioners voted this year to levy a property tax. An estimated $425,000 will be raised through the use of the levy, set at .038-per-$100 assessed valuation.
These funds will be used to rebuild the county's unencumbered balance.
Next year, commissioners could vote to reduce or remove the levy if sales-tax revenue rises to a level sufficient to meet the county's budgetary needs. The year after, an assessment year, they could vote to raise it.
Auditor Pete Frazier and Treasurer Roger Hudson say the situation is not caused by the county spending more than it is taking in. To date, actual expenditures for the year are $8,238,181. Revenue is $8,574,805. They say what is happening is a combination of sales-tax revenue staying fairly flat, some revenue declining and reimbursements failing to cover steadily rising costs.
"The cost for everything has gone up, but we have maintained spending," Hudson said.
The county's total general revenue expenditures since 2006 have risen slightly, apart from 2009, when spending was down by about $180,000. The requested expenditure amount for 2012 is $11.5 million. Spending in 2011 was $10.7 million. Officeholders return from 7 to 10 percent of their allotted amounts to the budget each year.
What worries them, though, is that their bottom line is shrinking.
"These numbers now have less buying power than ever," Hudson said, which results in a shrinking unencumbered balance, down from near $1 million before 2008 to an estimated $154,000 this year.
Frazier said the amount of budgeted expenditures this year has to allow for unanticipated costs, such as more than $200,000 in repairs, maintenance and technology upgrades in facilities like the Jackson courthouse, parks and offices the county had to perform in 2011.
Hudson said he worries about items in the budget when looking line by line, and knowing how much less revenue the county is receiving. An example would be reimbursements by the state for boarding prisoners, for which the county is reimbursed only when a prisoner is convicted. Another example would be property assessment, the amounts of which have been slashed by more than half since 2009.
"There is no known amount by which these line items could increase," Hudson said. "And we never know how much we are going to actually get back, or when it's coming to us."
A revenue source the county has relied on in the past comes as payments for interest on accounts it holds for an emergency fund and the general revenue fund. The county used to receive an interest payment of more than $200,000 each year on its general revenue fund. In 2011, it received $5,700. Changes in federal requirements since 2008 allowed interest payments to be reduced. Interest payments on the county's $5 million emergency fund account also have declined, from $240,000 in 2006 to $102,000 in 2011.
Reimbursement amounts to the county from the state for services show a similar fall.
In 2009, the county received $159,000 for property assessments; last year, $120,000. Reimbursements for boarding prisoners were $329,000 in 2006, and climbed to $405,000 in 2010. A downward trend began in 2011, with $246,000 going to the county.; it has received only $81,000 so far this year.
Hudson said there is no way to determine if the amount will increase or when the county could see the money, since it is only reimbursed when the state wins a case, and court proceedings sometimes can be lengthy.
Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy and Associate Commissioner Paul Koeper, along with Hudson and Frazier, maintain that putting the county's "safety net" to use by passing the tax increase was necessary. Historically, more than half of the county's general revenue budget has come from sales-tax revenue, and revenue when compared to previous years was down during five of the past seven months. Associate Commissioner Jay Purcell voted not to enact the levy.
Commissioners were allowed to enact the levy. In 1979, voters approved a reduction in property taxes in lieu of a county sales tax, but ballot language allowed for adjusting a property tax levy in the case additional revenue was required to meet the county's budget needs. Under that 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, according to ballot language.
The levy was set at zero every year since 1982. At some point, officeholders say, the calculation apparently stopped being made.
Frazier's estimated calculations of the levy based on budget needs for each year showed the county could have been charging a tax since 2001, bringing in between $200,000 and $500,000 during most years, but that money went uncollected.
Hudson said resuming the calculation and collecting the tax, if needed, is a very distinct and straightforward process the county is supposed to go through. "So many counties have relied on this," he said. "They say they don't know how we have gone so long without doing it."
Bollinger County has similar ballot language but has always collected sales tax and property tax using the calculation.
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