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Officials want sales tax to be permanent

Thursday, March 22, 2007

BENTON -- Scott County officials hope the half-cent law enforcement sales tax will be made permanent.

On April 3, county voters will be asked to do that.

Scott County voters approved an eight-year half-cent law enforcement sales tax in April 2000 to fund the construction of a new county jail and to cover the costs of housing the county's prisoners in other jails.

"Next year is the last," Presiding County Commissioner Jamie Burger said of that tax. "It expires on Sept. 30, 2008."

The current law enforcement sales tax enabled a "pretty aggressive payoff" of the jail, Burger said. "That is going to be accomplished."

The bond payment on the jail is about $750,000 per year with the last payment to be made in 2008 but commissioners believe revenue from the tax is still needed.

"Law enforcement is going to be a continuing expense, and an expensive expense," Burger said.

"Last year we spent $3,270,235 to provide law enforcement for the county," he said. This amount included sheriff's department and jail personnel salaries, upkeep of the jail and housing prisoners that the jail doesn't have room for in addition to the jail's bond payment.

When county officials researched how large a facility to build, experts advised 120 beds based on the county's population. Even though they suspected more room might be needed, officials didn't think voters would approve a larger facility.

Burger said jails are full everywhere.

Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn noted prison systems are experiencing the same problem.

"Eventually the jail will have to be added to," Burger said. "People who live in the neighborhoods of these criminals expect them to be locked up, but it doesn't come without a cost."

Ziegenhorn said it would be nice if crime would go away and they could use the jail as a storage facility, but that isn't likely to happen.

Currently, county law enforcement operates at about a $1.67 million deficit, according to commissioners.

Transfers to the law enforcement fund from general revenue totaled nearly $1.32 million in 2005, over $1.49 million in 2006 and are projected to be $1.04 million this year.

Transfers are expected to be lower this year because of better accounting practices: $658,000 in revenue that was passed through general revenue to the law enforcement fund is being put straight into the law enforcement fund now.

County officials have also already found some ways to increase revenue in other ways, managing to bring in another $58,000 with phone cards, by establishing a co-pay requirement for medical services, and from the commissary at the jail.

The current half-cent law enforcement sales tax brings in "approximately $1.6 million," Ziegenhorn said. "It varies up and down."

The only other countywide sales tax is the half-cent general revenue tax. "We have a penny total," Burger said.

New Madrid and Cape Girardeau counties both have a total of 1 cent in sales tax while Mississippi County has a total of 1 3/4 cents.

Burger said if an individual manages to spend $8,000 in the county, they end up contributing $40 to law enforcement through a half-cent sales tax.

If the sales tax were to be continued, general revenue transfers will still be needed but commissioners will be able to reduce that amount somewhat as there won't be a bond payment on the jail after 2008.

Commissioner Ron McCormick said county law enforcement needs additional deputies and cars and the prosecutor's office is shorthanded.

Burger noted not having enough assistant prosecutors means longer stays in jail which in turn drives up expenses and keeps the jail population up.

Having the sales tax revenue stream continue after the jail is paid off would enable officials to work toward several goals to smooth law enforcement operations including moving the sheriff's offices from the current location next to the associate court to the top floor of the jail.

The prosecuting attorney offices then would move into the old sheriff's offices to give them more room, more space for filing, and to be next to the associate court where most of the court activity is.

The public administrator could then move into the old prosecutor's office so all county business would be conducted at the county seat. The public administrator offices are currently in Sikeston.

"We also need to build a county records storage facility," Burger said. He said he would also like to see the county establish an emergency storage center stocked with boxed water, ready-to-eat meals, body bags and a mobile command center.

And economic development is always a concern, according to commissioners.

"I think we need to improve our infrastructure and I think that advances economic development," Burger said.

Most developers, whether they are putting in trailers or high-priced homes, "want to be on hard-surfaced roads," he said.

"We feel everybody benefits from economic development," Ziegenhorn said. "You get more taxes by having more people, more jobs, more money spent in the county."