The sales tax checks generated by retail spending in Cape Girardeau County are starting to look a little better to H. Weldon Macke, county auditor.
For the better part of this year, Macke has watched each month as the bottom line fluctuated from bad to worse as consumers cautiously guarded their wallets amidst stock market turmoil and economic uncertainties.
But for the first time this year, two consecutive months have shown an increase in revenue generated by the half-cent sales tax. Figures reported in July showed an increase of 1.9 percent from July 2001; and August saw a nearly 20 percent increase over August 2001. The figures reflect actual retail sales from two months prior.
"When I look at the whole picture, it looks like the economy's definitely picked up," Macke said. "I think with back-to-school sales, then Christmas, we'll finish on the plus side. People seem to be spending more than they had been. I feel pretty good about it."
Macke predicted the county will see an overall 2 percent increase in retail sales tax revenue compared to last year. Retail sales for the entire year so far are about $3.341 million, compared to $3.344 million last year at this time.
Following the trend
It's a national trend. Sales by U.S. retailers rose by a brisk 1.2 percent in July, primarily pushed by strong automobile sales, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
The city of Cape Girardeau, mired in financial problems, also is seeing an increase in revenue generated from its 1-cent sales tax. After a reduction in sales tax revenue in June, the city had a 3.1 percent increase in July and a 20 percent increase in August, compared to a year ago.
But for the year overall, city finance director John Richbourg said the city has seen only a seven-tenths of a percent increase, while officials wrote the budget anticipating a 3 percent increase.
"We've got costs that are going up regardless of whether we get more sales tax money or not," Richbourg said. "It's somewhat unrealistic to think you can live on the same amount you did last year."
But Richbourg said he hopes the trend of more retail spending -- and therefore more tax money -- continues.
"It would help," he said. "But there are still a lot of uncertainties out there that could set us back. You've got some economists saying the worst is over and others saying another recession is coming. Who's right? There's no way to know."
But local retailers are saying that they're seeing more shoppers.
"It's picking up," said Famous Barr store manager Sharon Ebershohl. "We've had a good season, and now that we're seeing more people in the store, it's looking better."
Lowe's Home Improvement Center recently reported a 41.9 percent increase over the same period a year ago for all of its stores in the country, and local store manager Bobby Gray said his store has seen a similar increase.
"We've really done very well," Gray said. "We think that we've done well because in times of downturn, people are traveling less and taking fewer vacations, so they're spending more time in the home and taking care of it. Plus, there are a lot of new home starts and remodeling. That's helped us and made the downturn hurt less."
Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce president and CEO John Mehner said it all goes back to a point he's made in the past: Cape Girardeau is insulated from much of the national economic trends because it is not overly dependant upon one industry. It is also a regional hub, drawing shoppers from all over Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois.
"Even when the economy's hurting, we're seeing record enrollment at the university and an increase in sales-tax revenue," Mehner said. "All of those things add up. Having said that, I'm not ready to run it up the flag pole and say, 'Hey, the economy's great.' We still have a ways to go."
Several area shoppers agreed with that.
Cape Girardeau resident Deb McWilliams is a state worker, and she hasn't had a raise in two years. She said that explains why she has put off buying a new car, despite the fact her old one has 125,000 miles on it.
"I'm not spending more money because I'm not making more money," McWilliams said. "And I know from past research every dollar I'm paid turns over three times in the local economy. So my not getting a raise has had a negative impact on the local economy. If I had more money, I'd spend more money."
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