July 24, 2008

Law Enforcement Tax Hike Could Save Extension Service

No the sheriff’s department won’t be handling 4-H, but a proposed 0.25% increase in the Scotland County law enforcement sales tax rate could save the county’s extension service. That was the message delivered by the Scotland County Commission at a special meeting of the Scotland County Extension Council held July 21 at the courthouse.

Because of worsening financial conditions, the county commission has been forced to cut the extension service’s budget from more than $23,000, down to $15,000 last year and then down to state mandated $5,000 minimum in 2008.

“This wasn’t a choice we liked making obviously,” stated presiding commissioner Mike Stephenson. “But our financial situation mandated we make budget cuts across the board.”

Stephenson explained to the extension council members and a large gathering of supporters of the service, that the county was going to place the sales tax issue on the November ballot.

Currently the county only levies 0.25% for law enforcement. The state allows county’s to tax up to 0.50%. The ballot issue will seek to raise the county’s law enforcement tax to 0.50%, or ½ cent per dollar spent in the community.

The tax change would generate an estimated $100,000 in additional revenue for the county.

Last year the county spent more than $270,000 from the general revenue fund on law enforcement related expenses including payroll for the sheriff’s department, prosecuting attorney’s office and the coroner.

Overall the county spent nearly $380,000 on law enforcement qualified expenses in 2007, while only generating a little more than $100,000 with the law enforcement sales tax.

If the new sales tax is approved by voters in November, it would ultimately generate around $200,000, cutting the amount of funding required from the general fund by $100,000.

“What we need to make sure that voters know is that this is not a tax that is going to generate $100,000 more for law enforcement,” stated commissioner Paul Campbell. “All this does is take the place of money we are already spending on law enforcement out of our general revenue.”

Currently Scotland County has a sales tax of 5.475%, with the sales tax in the City of Memphis and the City of Rutledge at 6.475%.

That compares to a sales tax rate of 6.225% in Knox County, 6.35% in Lewis County, 5.725% in Clark County, 5.725% in Schuyler County and 5.350% in Adair County. City sales tax rates in neighboring towns are 6.725% in Kahoka, 7.225% in Edina, 8.225% in Queen City, 7.6% in Kirksville and 7.725% in Canton.

Stephenson pledged that if the ballot issue was approved in November, that the commission would return the extension service to its former budget level of $23,000.

“However, we need this sales tax for more than just the extension service,” Stephenson added. “We have not been able to give a cost of living pay increase to our employees the last three years. So this new revenue is not being earmarked for any special projects but simply to help keep us afloat.”

Campbell added that the county likely would have to look at layoffs if the tax is not approved.

“Basically we are going to have to have more dollars if we want to keep this building [courthouse] going’” Campbell said. “We have made layoffs this year, and we are running out of places to cut, meaning cutting services may have to be next.”

Campbell added that the county is facing a roof problem at the courthouse that likely is going to require extensive repairs.

“Right now we are looking at some less expensive repairs, but we know it is only a bandaid,” Campbell said.

MU University Extension county council coordinator Tony DeLong indicated that Scotland County is one of just three of Missouri’s 114 counties that has reduced extension budgets to the state mandated minimum of $5,000, adding that Worth County has done so with the aid of an endowment from a private citizen that is funding the extension service there.

“Right now just 11-percent of Missouri’s counties are funding their extension office with $23,000 or less,” DeLong said. “But ultimately the decision on how much funding is enough for the budget belongs to the local council members.”

Council chairperson Jeff Behrens indicated he was confident that if the county returned the extension budget to $23,000 the local office would be able to return to regular office hours.

MU Extension Northeast Regional Director Soneeta Grogan noted that extension likely could not maintain its employees in Scotland County without the local budget that pays for the office secretary, office supplies and the travel budget to bring in additional extension experts for class offerings and other scheduled local events.

The MU extension service pays the salary of county program director Judy Howard and youth program assistant Pat Wiggins.

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