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Diehlstadt officials seek aid

Friday, August 15, 2008

(Photo)
Michelle Felter, Staff Joel Evans, Scott County's emergency management director, takes inventory of items in the county's new regional homeland security oversight committee mass care trailer. The county received the trailer on Wednesday, which has supplies for 300 in case of a disaster.
BENTON -- The village of Diehlstadt is in a pickle. It doesn't have the money to sustain itself, plus pay off its debts, or even its monthly bills.

Mark Pemberton, a board member of the village of Diehlstadt, and Cathy Walters, area specialist for USDA Rural Development, met with Scott County Commissioners at their regular meeting on Thursday to discuss solutions to help the village be financially solvent.

One of the biggest problems is that not everyone pays their taxes -- and with no enforcing agency, there is no real penalty not to pay personal property taxes. "They'll pay the real estate, but they will not pay their personal property taxes," said Pemberton.

Walters explained that, five years ago, the village took out a $40,000 loan for street improvements. It has now been paid down to $12,000. But with an average income of about $650 per month from the fuel tax -- which has been reduced due to mandatory reimbursement to the state -- and real estate taxes, Diehlstadt is no longer able to keep up with that payment, plus electricity bills for its street lights. The electricity bill runs about $250 a month, said Pemberton, and is two months behind.

"They want to pay their debts," said Walters. "But now that they're in such a jam for the community to remain solvent, they need some help."

One idea generated was having taxpayers in Diehlstadt pay all of their taxes in Scott County -- which would require all taxes be paid in order to have car licenses, etc. Pemberton said he has spoken to County Collector Mark Hensley and he said that is possible, however, the county would keep a certain percentage to pay for equipment and labor.

Pemberton said the commission would likely be added to taxpayers' bills as a tax increase. He said he and other board members will plan a public hearing to discuss the plan and get feedback, and an ordinance would later be passed.

Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger noted the commission has no direction over how taxes are collected. "That's not our decision at all," he said. "But I think that's the direction you need to go."

Walters also said she's been looking into finding an agency to help the village pay off its debt for the street improvements. "I've talked to several agencies and they can't refinance or help them," she said.

Walters asked the county to pay off the debt. "They need the payments to be lower," she said.

Burger said that isn't something he thinks the county can do -- as far as the statutes officials are governed by, as well as from a financial standpoint. "And it's not like this is my money," he said.

He said, however, he will contact the Missouri Association of Counties to inquire if any other small communities are in the same bind. "A lot of times, it has happened somewhere else," he said. "Let me see what they say."

Burger also suggested going to the bank to ask for additional time to pay off the loan, with smaller monthly payments.

Turning off the street lights was another idea, raised by Commissioner Ron McCormick. But, that is a public safety issue, said Pemberton.

There aren't any grants available to help the village, either.

"With few exceptions, grants are available to fund specific projects, not available to augment operating budgets," said Joel Evans, the county's economic developer. "Many of these grants have a required match -- Diehlstadt can't offer a match at this point. Grants could have been a help at some point in the past and may be again in the future, but they are not the solution to today's problem for this village."

In other news, the county received its regional homeland security oversight committee mass care trailer on Wednesday.

"The trailer actually came to us basically free of charge," said Burger. He formerly served on the state's Region E committee.

Following the February ice storm-related power failures and later evacuations due to the spring flooding, Evans, who is also the county's emergency management director, requested funds to purchase shelter supplies for the county to store. Some items were received, but it was not enough -- nor is assistance from the American Red Cross or Salvation Army enough. It also is more time-consuming to receive supplies from those agencies, noted Evans.

"Now in the event that we have a disaster, we'll be able to take our FEMA trailer on site for communications and we'll take this trailer on site for mass care," said Burger. "On a small scale, this will give us the ability to assist people in times of distress."

The trailer has supplies for 300, including a wall tent, cots, blankets, food service supplies, lighting, a generator and an emergency communications package.

"We've had at least three situations recently where we needed shelter and this would give us quick access," said Evans, noting several area counties have similar trailers. "If there were an isolated disaster, all those trailers could be taken to one county and used together."