Bleak budget forecast for Barry County

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Barry County will be operating under another bare bones budget in 2013. The proposed $3.395 million in budget requests and estimated revenue totals indicate the need for additional reductions in operations for a county that already instituted cuts in 2012.

Faced with a loss of a county sales/use tax that was collected on vehicles and boats that were puchased out of state, Barry County officials are bracing for a flat, or even declining, revenue stream. In January, the county's revenue showed a decrease of $13,000 from the previous year. Since the use tax was eliminated last April, the county has lost $63,000 in revenue. The Missouri Association of Counties estimates Barry County will lose $120,000 annually due to the loss of the tax.

"This is adding to the problems with revenue we were having before," said Barry County Presiding Commissioner Cherry Warren. "We'll survive, but it's going to be tough. There's not a whole lot left to cut (from the budget)."

As the county begins the budget approval process, Warren said county commissioners are looking at ways to increase revenue. Options include asking voters to approve a sales tax or a use tax to offset declining revenue.

Warren said the commission is leaning toward placing a general revenue sales tax issue on the April ballot.

"For the commission to sit here and do nothing, it's only going to get worse," said Warren. "We are considering putting some type of tax issue before the people for additional revenue. I think people have a right to make that decision."

Warren said the county is like any business, and it's either going to move forward or fall behind.

"In law enforcement, we're going backward," said Warren. "We don't have the manpower to do what we have to do."

Currently, the Barry County Sheriff's Department employs 15 full-time officers to cover a county that encompasses 791 square miles. Last year, three officers were laid off to cut expenses.

"We don't have too many places where we can cut this year," said Warren. "The presence of law enforcement has a lot to do with the kind of criminal activity that occurs in a county."

Another issue facing the county is the fact that its employees have not had a pay or cost-of-living increase in five years.

"We're not keeping pace with the City of Cassville and other entities in the area," said Warren. "Our employees are loyal, but if we ever have to replace an employee, it's going to be hard to get the kind of people we want with our salary schedule."

Officeholders' salaries have also remained unchanged for nine years, and there won't be an increase for a minimum of four more years, Warren said.

"They're not asking for a salary increase, and people need to know that any tax increases will not be going to officeholders," Warren added.

According to Warren, Barry County ended 2012 about $260,000 in the black. The year-end outlook would have been a lot worse if the county had not received a $70,000 reimbursement from the state to offset the cost of prosecuting two capital murder trials in 2012 and an additional $70,000 in prisoner per diem costs for housing Christopher Collings and David Spears in the Barry County Jail for the past five years.

"These really helped our bottom line, and we won't have these windfalls next year," said Warren.

An additional $50,000 will be taken off the bottom line when the county pays for two new police cars it ordered in 2012. This expense comes directly out of the county commission's budget.

"Our fleet of cars are deteriorating," said Warren. "We don't have the money to purchase the vehicles we need. Our maintenance costs will go up as the cars get older. We would love to have our cars on a four-year rotation, and we can't afford to do that right now.

"The county's reserves are too low," Warren added.

In order to place a sales tax issue on the April ballot, the commission will need to vote on the measure by Jan. 22. Running the issue in April will cost the county very little money because election expenses will be shared with cities and schools. If the vote were held in June, the special election would cost the county $15,000 to $16,000, Warren said.

Barry County voters have not approved an increase in the sales tax since 1994. An issue seeking a three-16th of a cent sales tax for law enforcement was defeated by area voters in November of 2011.

A public hearing to discuss the 2013 budget will be held on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 10:30 a.m. in the commissioner's room at the historic Barry County Courthouse in Cassville.

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