On Tuesday, the Barry County Commission opened the lines of communication between local government and area residents by hosting an open forum to discuss the county's financial situation.
"We're concerned about our county finances," said Presiding Commissioner Cherry Warren. "We want feedback about what the people of Barry County think we should do."
Over the last three decades Barry County's assessed valuation has jumped from $24,830,132 to $434,785,872. Despite the large increase in assessed valuation, the Barry County Commission has not seen a substantial increase in revenues since it zeroed out its property tax in 1994.
A one-half percent sales tax represents 51 percent of the county's total revenue. Barry County Treasurer Lois Lowe estimates that the county will receive $1,839,850 in sales tax revenues in 2009, which is a 3 percent decrease compared to last year's revenues.
"No one knows what sales tax will be," said Warren. "Last year, we ended up $2,700 in the black. We don't know what this year will hold, but we feel, looking at the general economy, that sales tax revenues will be down 3 percent from 2008."
In addition to sales tax revenues, the county should receive around $1,713,408 in other revenues in 2009. Lowe estimates next year's total revenue at $3,553,258.
The county maintained a surplus of around $220,000 last year. This year, the 3 percent drop in sales tax revenues and the requirement to set aside 3 percent of the budget for an emergency reserve fund will force the county commission to use around half of its surplus, said Frank Washburn, northern county commissioner.
The 2009 budget, which will be finalized later this week, includes expenditures for two new law enforcement vehicles and two new employees, who will work in the newly expanded Barry County Jail.
"We didn't figure in any salary increases for county employees," said Warren. "They haven't received a raise during the last two years.
"Our employees are not any different than any other employees," said Warren. "They deserve a raise this year. They deserved a raise last year."
Several county employees voiced their concerns about not receiving a salary increase again this year.
"When you lose employees because they don't get a raise, it takes time and money to train a new person," said Barry County Deputy Larry Stockton. "It's hard to support a family when you don't get a raise. It's hard living paycheck to paycheck. You're losing a lot by not giving a raise."
"I think we're all in this together," said Weaver Forest. "We need to look for ways to cut our own wants and needs to weather the storm. I think that if you have a job right now you should feel awfully lucky that you have a job and that you are making the same amount of money."
Warren stated that sales tax revenues would have to decrease by 9 percent for the county commission to consider cutting staff.
"We do not have any overstaff in this county," said Warren. "If you were to look at our offices, you would see that we are probably understaffed."
Washburn warned that if the county does not find an alternative source of revenue it could be forced to reduce the number of staff members.
Dr. Chip Kammerlohr suggested the county commission place a one-quarter-cent sales tax on an upcoming ballot.
"I think it would be a hard, hard sale to pass a sales tax today," said Warren. "If we look at a sales tax, I think it should have a sunset clause for five years that would give the voters a chance to look and see how we handled the money. I think it will be pretty tough to get voters to approve any tax this spring though."
"Without a sales tax, what other option do we have?" asked Captain Dana Kammerlohr, of the Barry County Sheriff's Department.
"We would have to make do with what we have and do the best we can with what we have to do with," said Warren. "We hope sales tax turns around, but it is anyone's guess. I would not bet my livelihood on a sales tax increase."
Cassville Democrat Editor Lisa Schlichtman suggested the county commission establish a committee to promote a sales tax issue if it is placed on an upcoming ballot.
"I think you should prepare to do this in 2010 so that you have time to educate everyone," said Jim Cox, of Cassville. "If people were aware of what our sales tax is compared to everywhere else, they might have a better idea about what they are looking at."
"Remember that we are actually depleting our funds by around $110,000 just to keep the budget the same as last year," said Lowe. "This really puts us in a bind."
Individuals interested in voicing their opinion on the county's financial situation are encouraged to call the Barry County Commission at 847-4628.