BC Commission to host open forum

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Barry County Commission will host an open forum next Thursday night to discuss a sales tax proposal.

According to Barry County Presiding Commissioner Cherry Warren, the county is trying to determine whether or not there is enough community support to place a sales tax proposal on the November ballot.

"We would like input from the people," said Warren. "We'd like to discuss the county's financial situation and see what direction the citizens feel we should take."

Barry County relies on a half-cent sales tax and fees to operate. The county sales tax totals for 2010 were $150,000 below 2008 levels and almost flat with 2009 revenues.

At a time when sales tax revenues are holding steady or declining, the county is faced with increasing expenses and the majority of the county's employees haven't received a cost-of-living raise in four years.

"Everything just costs more," said Warren.

In addition, the county will be faced with covering the costs associated with two capital murder jury trials next year that could cost the county an estimated $200,000 or more, according to Warren.

Looking ahead, Warren doesn't expect the county's financial situation to improve without additional revenue.

"I can't see our current sales tax taking us out of this financial situation," said Warren.

Warren said the sales tax would be used for public safety and general revenue. In particular, Warren said the county needs to be able to budget more money for the prosecutor's office.

"Johnnie Cox (county prosecutor) works as hard as anyone, but he needs help in his office," said Warren.

The county would like to be able to provide Cox with a full-time assistant prosecutor to assist with the office's growing caseload. Currently, Pat Sullivan serves as assistant prosecutor on a part-time basis. The prosecutor's office is also operating short at least one clerk.

"When I took office, we had a victim's advocate funded by a grant," explained Cox. "We lost the funding in 2005, and since then, we've had to operate without a victim's advocate. Those duties have been handled by myself or my assistant or by my staff who have other responsibilities."

When compared to other counties in the 39th Circuit, the Barry County Prosecutor's Office operates with a much smaller staff.

"Basically, the other counties have a part-time and a full-time assistant prosecutor and two or three more full-time staff members as well," said Cox.

Cox will also be required to commit at least one month to trying each of the pending murder cases next year.

"You can only be in one place at one time, and next year, those cases will require me to be away from the county, and other cases will still need to be handled in my absence," Cox said.

Through the rest of 2011, the Barry County Prosecutor's Office has 14 different jury trial dockets scheduled with an average of three to four trials per docket in addition to the regular docket of arraignments, preliminary hearings, bad check court and drug court.

"I won't say all of these cases will go to trial, but they are scheduled and you still have to prepare for them," added Cox.

"Additional law enforcemen funding would help victims see their cases move more quickly through the court system," continued Cox. "Right now when we are setting preliminary hearings we're setting them five to six months out and jury trials are being set eight months to a year out."

Additional details about the proposed sales tax and how the revenue from the tax would be spent will be discussed at next week's forum.

The Barry County Commission has until Aug. 30 to decide whether or not to place a sales tax issue on the November ballot. The last time county voters were asked to approve a sales tax was in 1993 when the half-cent sales tax was approved. Barry County has been operating under the same half-cent sales tax for 18 years.

The open forum will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Barry County Courthouse in Cassville. All county residents are encouraged to attend.

The Commission will host the meeting, and all county officeholders are expected to be in attendance.

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