County sales tax is justified

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

No one likes taxes, especially here in Barry County, but sometimes a tax increase is necessary to make sure citizens continue receiving the local government services they deserve. A tax can also be justified if the government entity seeking the increase has a track record of spending tax money wisely.

On April 2, Barry County voters will be asked to approve an eighth of a cent sales tax increase to support county government. If approved, the majority of the new revenue raised by the sales tax increase will be used to support the prosecutor's office and sheriff's department, which are facing devastating cuts if the tax does not pass.

In my 15-plus years covering county government, I haven't agreed with every action taken by the county commission, but I have witnessed a consistent commitment to fiscal conservatism that is indisputable. For example, county leaders chose to stockpile surplus revenue into a capital expenditures fund during the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000, and as a result, Barry County was able to pay cash for construction of a new $2 million Judicial Center in 2002-2003 without amassing any debt.

The days of surplus revenue are long gone, and for the past several years, the county has been faced with stagnant sales tax revenue that forced painful cuts in 2012, which were not restored in this year's budget. In response to lean economic conditions, the county has literally cut its budget to the bone. The fiscal belt has been cinched as tightly as it will go, and without additional revenue, more severe cuts will have to be made.

Since 1993, the county has been operating under the same half-cent sales tax without any increases. At that time, over 20 years ago, when voters approved the original half-cent sales tax, the county zeroed out its property tax. Local citizens should note that none of the property tax they pay benefits the county. Barry County operates solely on revenue it derives from the half-cent general revenue sales tax plus fees charged for various services. It should also be pointed out that the half-cent sales tax for roads and bridges can only be used for that purpose. None of those funds can be used for law enforcement or general operations of the county.

Due to a flagging economy and some recent changes in tax law, the county's financial outlook is less than rosy. County commissioners would not be acting in the best interests of their constituents if they did not pursue some type of tax increase to offset looming cuts in service, which will affect every taxpayer.

Already, the sheriff's department is operating short staffed. Deputies are often working without back-up, and it won't be long before criminals realize Barry County is a good place to operate because law enforcement resources are stretched thin. We've come too far in our war against meth and other drugs to lose ground now. A boost in sales tax revenue would have a direct positive effect on public safety and the county's ability to fight crime.

I hear people complain about how slowly the wheels of justice turn as victims of crime are forced to wait for their day in court. This backlog will only be amplified if the tax issue is not approved. Currently, Barry County leads the 39th Circuit in the number of cases filed yet the Barry County Prosecutor's Office operates with less staff than its counterparts in Lawrence and Stone counties and other similarly sized counties across the state. Over the past three years, the number of cases filed in the county has increased by 21 percent, and it doesn't look like those numbers are going to decline anytime soon.

Johnnie Cox, working as the lone full-time prosecutor, and his office have done a phenomenal job of doing more with less, but it's time they were staffed to the level they need to handle their growing caseload. The prosecutor is not one to complain, and we feel its time to provide his office with the additional resources it deserves.

The sheriff's department and the prosecutor's office work hand in hand to combat crime, and in our opinion, the proliferation of drug activity remains one of Barry County's most pressing problems. Paying an eighth of a cent more in sales tax will cost consumers an additional $12.50 for each $10,000 spent in the county. We believe this is a small price to pay for the safety and wellbeing of our communities. We urge area citizens to vote "yes" on April 2 in support of the Barry County sales tax. ~ Lisa Schlichtman