Greene County Candidates Talk Jail, Taxes in First Debate

May 1, 2014

Candidates for Greene County Presiding Commissioner answered questions on county jail costs, a failed use tax proposal, and methods to boost economic growth, among others, during a debate this week in Springfield. KSMU’s Julie Greene was there.

Republicans Bob Cirtin, Steve Helms and Jerry Fenstermaker, as well as Libertarian candidate Benjamin Brixey took questions from a moderator and the public. Democrat Donna Bergen was unable to attend.

Update: 5-02-14: Greene County MU Extension Council has posted some video of Tuesday night's debate. You can view excerpts here and here.

“We’ve been worried about the jail in Greene County for some time, and for Libertarians, the solution is pretty easy, which is to stop the war on drugs. The goal is to literally reduce the prison population to stop punishing people for victimless crimes,” Brixey said.

That’s Benjamin Brixey, a student at OTC and youth soccer coach and maintenance worker.

Bob Cirtin, director of Evangel’s Criminal Justice program, pointed out a bill in the Missouri Legislature that increases the rate paid for housing Department of Corrections inmates. He says if passed, it could bring in as much roughly $500,000 a year to Greene County.

Current Greene County Clerk Steve Helms called for a minimum security jail and to find a way to move individuals faster through the legal system.

Cirtin and Brixey declared a need for no additional taxes. Fenstermaker, a longtime businessman, stated that taxes can work if they’re controlled and supervised. Helms, who voted for the use tax and recently approved police-fire pension sales tax, vowed not to put a tax on the ballot if elected.

“I voted for the use tax. I said in the very beginning, it was the wrong time to put the use tax on the ballot because it was not being pushed by the businesses. It has to be seen as a fair tax, and it is a fair tax, but it was only seen by the public, and the only reason it was voted down was because it was seen as a need and a grab for more county tax money, not because it was a fair tax for our brick and mortar businesses,” Helms said.  

Fenstermaker called on the county to get its finances in order, adding that doing so would allow for the expansion of facilities, plus enable officials to identify inefficiency in its funding.

To encourage economic growth, Cirtin said that the county needs to continue its strategic partnership with the Chamber of Commerce and to talk to the City of Springfield to try and consolidate departments. Brixey stated that governments cannot centrally plan or create economic growth, and cited the seen vs. unseen as his explanation. Helms and Fenstermaker, meanwhile, said that economic development happens in the private sector. Fenstermaker noted his time as chairman of the fundraising committee for Sold on St. Louis 10 years ago.

“We raised $9 million. Where do you think the money came from? The contractors and the developers. They’re the ones with the money. They’re the ones who can make economic development happen. The city, the county offers what it can in the way of attraction, but when rubber hits the road, it’s the private sector where the money comes from,” Fenstermaker said.

One of the main issues cited by candidates at the state level is right-to-work legislation. Both Fenstermaker and Cirtin rank the bill at the top of their list.

“And there [are] a lot of businesses that go elsewhere because we don’t have that. There are legislators working on that, and I think that is a priority. If we can get right-to-work legislation, I think that’s going to help businesses gravitate towards Missouri including Greene County,” Cirtin said.  

Additionally, Helms noted the importance of the bill, but also expressed a need for the state to pay for Greene County prisoners, while Brixey pushed for state nullification.

Other topics that were addressed during Wednesday night’s debate included green space, the future of agriculture, park funding and storm water issues. Another debate has not yet been announced. The primary election will take place on August 5th.