EDITORIAL: Law enforcement sales tax is needed, but will be a very hard sell
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Saturday, January 17, 2009 11:46 pm
As Pulaski County enters the last phases of its 2009 budget decisions this week, Pulaski County Sheriff J.B. King has been faced with what he calls a choice between cutting off his left hand or his right hand.
The county commissioners were forced to borrow $150,000 last month to pay their bills, and they've now told King to find a way to cut $125,000 out of his department. Budget cuts that massive can be made only by eliminating staff; smaller cuts may help but they won't save enough money. King must now choose between eliminating his nighttime dispatchers and pulling a deputy off the road to provide backup for his jailers, or reducing his total number of deputies to keep the dispatchers in his office. To King's credit, he won't even consider a third option: leaving a single jailer alone in the jail at night with nobody else in the building except 28 inmates. But whether deputies are pulled off the road to back up the jailers or deputies are laid off to keep the dispatchers, the total number of deputies available to drive on Pulaski County roads after business hours is likely to drop even farther below what are already shortstaffed levels.
There are two ways to solve a budget deficit: cut costs or increse revenues. Considering the criticality of the county's financial needs, it will likely surprise no one that I support putting a Pulaski County law enforcement sales tax on the ballot for voters to decide the question for themselves. I believe, furthermore:
1. The proposed ballot language for the law enforcement tax should provide a separately designated funding source for the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department that can be used only for law enforcement, much as the existing property tax for the Pulaski County Road and Bridge Department can be used only for road work.
2. The proposed amount for the law enforcement sales tax must raise sufficient revenue to cover the actual expenses of the 2008 Pulaski County Sheriff's Department budget; that budget cannot be reduced without dramatically harming law enforcement to Pulaski County, and while an actual growth in the budget is needed, that growth can best be accomplished by the natural growth of sales tax revenues that has historically been seen in Pulaski County.
3. The ballot language for the proposed law enforcement sales tax should include a provision reducing the existing general revenue sales tax by an amount similar to what would be transferred to the sheriff's department, thereby making the total proposed tax increase less than it otherwise would be and more acceptable to voters, unless the cities and private sector businesses involved in the Pulaski County Growth Alliance agree to support the law enforcement sales tax in return for having a designated portion of the existing general revenue sales tax be redirected toward economic development purposes.
My decision to support a tax increase is not easy, nor did it come quickly. As a conservative Republican, I believe taxes are far too high and much of the money raised by them goes toward government projects that either shouldn't be done at all or that aren't the job of the government because they can be performed more efficiently by the private sector. A sad consequence of overtaxing people for projects is that the primary job of the government -- providing for public safety -- all too often gets left behind and remains underfunded while money is wasted on unnecessary duties.
Having covered the county commission for four and a half years, I've been sitting in the commission chambers longer than any of the current commissioners and longer than the current sheriff. I've also attended far more meetings on county budget issues and law enforcement financing than most people outside the county commission who are supporting or opposing a law enforcement sales tax. Since I attend meetings of every city council in Pulaski County, the Pulaski County 911 Board, and the Pulaski County Fire Chiefs Association, I hear a broad base of awareness of public opinion and realize tax increases will be very unpopular unless carefully defended.
The sheriff's department funding needs are real, they are critical, and deserve widespread publicity.
It's easy to point to the consequences of the current funding crisis. How many Pulaski County residents would be willing to drive patrol cars with 200,000 or more miles on them whose light bars and radios are worth more than the car? How many would be willing to be the sole jailer on duty in the courthouse with 28 inmates if, as now seems likely, the night dispatchers will all be laid off due to lack of funds? Or how many people want to be told at 2 a.m. that no deputies are available to respond quickly because the sole deputy on duty has to remain at the courthouse with the jailer since all the night dispatchers have been laid off?
Those issues are critical problems because they can affect life and safety of deputies and the public, but longstanding problems due to lack of funds are no less serious. Something is wrong when the county sheriff's department uses donated cars from the St. Robert Police Department that were considered for scrap after car crashes, but are in better condition than some of the patrol cars in use by the sheriff's department. Anyone who believes the sheriff's department is not efficient need only look to the hard work of Maj. Tom Cristoffer, the department's maintenance officer and a car mechanic -- if it were not for his car repair skills, the county would already have a vehicle maintenance crisis.
If it's true that we show how much we value people by what we pay them, deputy pay levels can only be considered a public disgrace. The son or daughter of a sheriff's deputy with decades of law enforcement experience can join the Army after high school and receive more money in just a few years after reaching the pay grade of E-4 or E-5. And while our uniformed servicemembers do warrant higher pay than civilian law enforcement of comparable experience because our military personnel do take greater risks, something is even more wrong when workers in other county departments receive higher pay than deputies despite not risking their lives for public safety. Unlike the state and federal levels which have plenty of money because they can adopt many taxes without a vote of the people, most county workers perform important tasks because all county departments must be careful with their limited funds. But those who risk their lives for the public should be paid in accordance with the risks they assume.
By paying deputies less than they should be paid and providing them with substandard equipment to perform their duties, the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department has become a training ground for other agencies. Deputies routinely leave the sheriff's department after a few years to join the ranks of city police or even go to work at Fort Leonard Wood as gate guards so they can support their families. That is not only unjust and unfair, it is also bad management because it forces constant retraining of new deputies.
Fixing these problems requires money -- money the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department does not have, and cannot realistically obtain apart from a specially designated law enforcement sales tax.
However, before a tax is placed on the ballot, supporters of the tax and members of the County Commission need to seriously think through the politics as well as the finances of a law enforcement sales tax. This is not just a simple matter of "put it on the ballot and it will pass, so let's all blame the commissioners for not giving the people a vote." Even though some supporters of a law enforcement sales tax blame the county commission for their problems, that is not only unfair but also untrue.
What will happen if the commissioners finally get frustrated, put the tax on the ballot believing it will fail, and it gets defeated by a wide margin? Two of the three commissioners (both Eastern District Commissioner Bill Farnham and Western District Commissioner Rick Zweerink) have said publicly in county commission meetings that they believe the tax will fail if it's put to a vote now. Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall is a master of vote-counting and vote analysis, and he has been much more careful in what he says on the issue, perhaps because he knows how many variables go into winning an election, but any sober-minded person must agree it would be very hard to sell any tax to the voters in the current economic situation.
Tax increases have been difficult to sell even before the current economic downturn. A few items from recent history must be carefully reviewed:
1. Yes, it's true that the Texas County law enforcement sales tax passed. It's also passed in other nearby rural counties which have much worse economic problems than Pulaski County. Did that happen because most of the elected officials in each of those counties agreed to back a tax so there was no organized opposition? I don't know the answer to that question, but somebody needs to find out.
2. Yes, it's true that in our own county, the Pulaski County Ambulance District got its sales tax passed. The Richland Police Department got its local sales tax passed. The Pulaski County 911 Center sales tax passed. The Tricounty Rural Fire Protection District surrounding Richland was incorporated with a voter-approved tax when it changed from an association to a fire district. But the Waynesville Rural Fire Protection District has repeatedly failed to get a property tax increase passed, and the same thing happened more recently with the Crocker fire tax.
Why did some taxes fail and others pass?
There are significant differences between all six prior tax votes and the proposed new law enforcement sales tax. The ambulance sales tax was billed as a better and fairer replacement for the previously existing property tax since it would mean anybody paying sales tax in Pulaski County, not just property owners, would pay -- that's important since so many ambulance calls are for crashes of people passing through on Interstate 44 or other roads. Similarly, even though the Richland police tax was a tax increase and not a replacement tax, it was billed as a way to collect money from people passing through on Highway 7 and Highway 133 on the way to Lake of the Ozarks who generate much of Richland's traffic. The 911 sales tax was billed as a replacement for the telephone tariff which was rapidly losing its effectiveness as a tax source because of cell phones, and it also provided a viable way to get the dispatchers serving the rest of the county out from under the control of a single law enforcement agency which also happened at that time to be headed by a controversial sheriff who had sued the county over the issue. The Tricounty Rural Fire Protection District was incorporated by convincing the public that associations are outdated and unfair because some people living in the association's territory won't pay their dues but still expect fire protection.
On the other hand, both the Waynesville and Crocker fire taxes failed, despite aggressive campaigning by the Crocker firefighters and a fairly good public information effort by the Waynesville firefighters. Somebody needs to ask some really hard questions about why -- and that's even more true in the current economy. Firefighting is usually popular and if fire taxes failed, other taxes are likely to have even greater difficulty passing.
As Presiding Commissioner, Bill Ransdall has repeatedly noted that elections are very expensive, and special elections are even more expensive. A solid estimate has never been provided on how much it would cost to put a law enforcement sales tax on the countywide ballot, and that's because so many other questions must be answered first. We have honest, accurate and fair elections in most parts of America, and that doesn't come cheap: there are thousands of dollars in costs for required legal newspaper notices of the election, paying the election judges, paying for election supplies, and numerous other items that have to be done in every election.
A recent failed Waynesville Rural Fire Protection District effort to increase the fire protection property tax ended up costing almost $27 per ballot because so few people voted in a special election called only to consider that question. The cost would be much less if the law enforcement sales tax were placed on a regular election ballot, but placing it on a regular ballot raises the very serious risk of voters going to the polls angry about some unrelated issue and voting "no" against all taxes without understanding the issues at stake. That's a particularly serious problem in Pulaski County since this is such a transient community.
Pulaski County has reached the point that it may not be able to have a functioning sheriff's department and a functioning jail without a tax increase. Placing a law enforcement sales tax on the ballot is the only realistic way to raise more revenue. But many questions must still be answered before that question goes to voters, or the tax will be rejected and the county will be in an even worse financial position than it is today.