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Greene County Commissioners will be asking voters to approve another tax this November. It’s not a sales tax like last year—it’s a use tax. Last year’s one-eighth cent sales tax for law enforcement, which voters passed, was supposed to alleviate jail overcrowding. But the county used that money to, among other things, hire new prosecutors to catch up on a backlog of arrest warrants. Now, the jail is seeing more inmates than ever. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson has this interview with Greene County Commissioner Roseann Bentley.
I began by asking Bentley why the proposed use tax is needed.
She said the recession hit the county hard, and its income took a hit when construction projects and other income-generating projects dropped significantly.
“We really are trying to right ourselves. Our employees, for instance, have not even had a cost of living increase for more than five years,” Bentley said.
Bentley says the county has a window of opportunity that is closing for implementing a use tax.
“The legislature has made a decision that if counties want a use tax, they’re going to have to put that in place within the next couple of years, or they won’t have an opportunity to. So our needs are still quite pressing. We just really need the three million dollars that we estimate this tax will bring in,” Bentley said.
The crowded Greene County Jail—and the safety of its guards—were two reasons for last year’s one-eighth-cent sales tax; Commissioners Bentley and Harold Bengsch, along with law enforcement officials, said the tax was needed to solve the problem of jail overcrowding. But the jail is as crowded—and as dangerous—as ever. We asked Bentley why the county is coming again, less than a year later, to solve the problem the first tax was supposed to solve.
There are solutions in the works, she says, but actual funding has not kept pace with the county’s initial expectations. Bentley said the law enforcement sales tax has been very helpful, and that it’s allowed the Prosecuting Attorney’s office to hire new staff and gain some ground on outstanding warrants. But the courts processing those cases have not been able to keep pace.
And the number of prisoners in Greene County continues to rise. This summer, the jail has seen up to 675 prisoners at a time, which is significantly higher than its maximum capacity.
Greene County is getting a new associate circuit judge. But Bentley says she’s not sure whether the new judge will take criminal cases. We asked how getting a new judge will alleviate jail overcrowding if the new judge doesn’t even take criminal cases.
“[The county cases] will be spread between more judges. So it will definitely alleviate, whether it’s that particular new judge or those are given to another judge and he’ll handle lesser crimes. So, it will definitely be a huge help. I don’t want to supersede the judge’s decision on who’s going to do what,” Bentley said.
Greene County Sherriff Jim Arnott is having to ship Greene County inmates to jails in other counties, creating thousands of dollars of expense each month. Also, this creates extra expenses for all branches of the justice system, including the public defenders who are representing those clients.
We asked Bentley if she’s concerned that these Greene County inmates may not be getting a fair trial because their attorneys cannot afford to meet with their clients so far away before their court date.
“Yes, it’s very demanding on the entire system,” Bentley said. “The judges, when they need that person who is the defendant, and who hasn’t been convicted of anything yet—when they need them back in their courtroom, you have that travel expense to go get that person who’s in the Henry County jail, then take them back to Henry County. So, it’s not a very good cost-saving measure at all. It’s a terrible inconvenience, and it does raise our cost. So, we’re trying everything we can to alleviate this problem,” Bentley said.
The use tax, she says, only applies to items bought by internet, and only when certain criteria are met.
“It will not be a general tax that affects everyone,” Bentley said.
It only applies when a buyer purchases an item online from a store that has a brick-and-mortar store in the state, she said.
“So, let’s just say you wanted to order a book from Barnes & Noble on the computer. You would have to pay that tax of 1.25 percent, because Barnes & Noble has a presence, not only here in Springfield, but throughout the state. However, if you ordered from another, maybe larger, internet company such as Amazon—I’m just giving these as examples—they don’t have a store within the state. So ,you wouldn’t have to pay it,” Bentley said.
There’s another component of the use tax regarding vehicles bought in other states and licensed in Missouri.
“When they’re brought back into the state and licensed here, they’ll have to be taxed here,” Bentley said.
Greene County has taken on several major projects in the past few years: it has contributed to the expenses for a Public Safety Center, a Crime Lab, and now plans to build a new morgue. We asked Bentley why the county continues to take on costly new projects—and continues to propose new taxes—when the problems of jail overcrowding, backlogged courts, and employee pay raises are still unsolved.
“It’s due, in large part, to the fact that each of the expenses is in a different component of the budget. The capital expenses, which are used for building, cannot be used for the other things you mentioned. On the Public Safety Center, we were able to access federal bonds, and federal grants to help us greatly with the expense of that building, but you couldn’t use that money for everyday expenses, such as jail costs,” Bentley said.
The morgue, which the country is just beginning to build, Bentley said, will be a much smaller project than the Public Safety Center. She says Commissioners feel that will help cut costs eventually, because the county currently sends some of its difficult cases to the University of Missouri-Columbia for forensic examinations.
“We have greatly needed a morgue in Greene County for a long time. We’ve been able to have space in a hospital. But health officials and safety experts say that is really not a good process at all, because of the danger of disease spreading,” Bentley said.
When asked what the priority from the proposed use tax would be, should it pass, Bentley said Commissioners don’t yet know.
“We haven’t completed that. We’re working on it. Sometimes, it’s really difficult when you have, as you and I have talked about, so many different needs. I think we’re hopeful that we might be able to do a cost-of-living raise for our employees. We’re losing employees because of our very low wages. And we’re concerned for our employees,” she said.
She and the other two Greene County Commissioners are asking Greene County voters in November to approve the 1.25% use tax, which she estimates will bring in about $3 million in revenue.
For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.