Counties seek state's help with new programs

Saturday, January 19, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- County governments are lining up to request more money from the state Legislature, but none of the officers of the local governments' lobbying organization predicts passage of some long-ignored requests.

This year's Missouri Association of Counties' legislative package includes new and earlier-requested programs that include a share of any increased highway revenue as well as payment for unfunded mandates on the state's 114 counties.

MAC's executive director, Dick Burke, said this year's legislative agenda calls for approval of seven high-priority issues, all of them OK'd at the association's annual business meeting in November.

The first priority of counties is state government funding of duties and programs mandated by the General Assembly but unfunded. These mandates include county revenue required for incarceration of state prisoners, detention and care of neglected or delinquent juveniles, and a state requirement to maintain accurate property valuations through biennial assessment maintenance efforts.

Other unfunded mandates counties will seek assistance for include the requirement to furnish office space and cover certain utility expenses for state public defenders and the administrative costs of statewide elections. These funding rules, according to Burke, "continue to escalate annually" and affect "each county's ability to provide other essential services to citizens."

MAC also will seek legislative support to preserve the base for computing local sales taxes, which constitute the major revenue sources for such services as county law enforcement and road and bridge maintenance. According to a statement adopted by MAC's directors, all Missouri counties have experienced increased attempts to erode the foundation of the tax base through legislative actions to authorize local-option sales taxes for special districts.

MAC officials contend the tax base has also been threatened by "numerous attempts to allow exemptions on certain purchases, either on a permanent basis or for temporary 'sales tax holidays.'" Added to this is what MAC officials says is an "unprecedented growth of uncollected sales and use taxes on Internet purchases," serving to further drain available tax revenue.

Although the organization has recommended no specific funding plan, it has expressed "conditional support" for a state sales tax increase to improve Missouri's highway system, providing counties receive a share of the new funding to maintain and repair the existing 71,645 miles of roads and 13,501 bridges that belong to local governments. MAC notes that 32 percent of these local bridges are structurally deficient and 47 percent are more than 50 years old. Nevertheless, there is concern over the use of a statewide sales tax for a new road plan that could diminish voter support for future county needs and requirements.

Court automation help

MAC officials say they will vigorously oppose an attempt in the last session of the General Assembly to assess half the cost of new equipment for the ongoing statewide court automation program. The effort to computerize the courts and their records and services has had costs far overrunning original estimates. A letter of legislative intent, sent last June to the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, notified him that no state expenditures for equipment purchases will be approved unless counties or local courts match the state contribution.

An effort also will be made to absolve counties of any cost-sharing for this statewide program, MAC officials have said.

Additionally, the county organization opposes unfunded mandates for new or revised legislation dealing with election reforms. "County officials are resolute in their opposition" to cost-sharing for any new efforts in this area, according to MAC officials. At the same time, counties support efforts for additional funding for the tax-assessment process, provided these costs are budgeted by each unit's governing commission.

Association officials were unwilling to speculate on how many of the proposals in their legislative package would receive favorable action this session, noting that several of these requests have been regularly included in previous recommendations to the General Assembly.

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