Law enforcement sales tax on ballot
Would be one-fourth cent

By Danette Thompson
Thursday, January 25, 2007 2:39 PM CST

Franklin County voters will decide in April whether to increase the county's law enforcement sales tax.

County commissioners, working just under Tuesday's deadline for getting issues on the April 3 ballot, unanimously approved a ballot issue asking voters to approve a one-fourth-cent law enforcement sales tax. The issue would need a simple majority for passage.

The county already levies a one-fourth-cent sales tax dedicated strictly to law enforcement.

But Presiding Commissioner Ed Hillhouse said the additional one-fourth-cent tax would provide funding for additional personnel and equipment and for much-needed technology upgrades in the Sheriff's Department.

County officials estimate the tax would generate about $2.5 million a year in new revenue for law enforcement. The money would be strictly dedicated to law enforcement and could not be used for expenditures in other departments or the general fund.
Hillhouse said county officials, for the last two years, have been working on a plan to increase funding for the Sheriff's Department.

"The staff at the Sheriff's Department hasn't changed to any significant extent for the last 11 years," Hillhouse said. "That's not to say a new officer hasn't been hired here and there, but typically those hirings have been because of grants the Sheriff's Department has received. The problem with grant funding is that you can't always count on it to be there year after year. Sales tax revenue is recurring funding that can be used for salaries."

For example, grant funding has supported the eight-member county Drug Task Force for the past 10 years, but Hillhouse said last year, county officials were worried about losing that grant funding.

If that had happened, the task force would have been cut to two members, he said, because the county wouldn't have been able to afford to pay for the additional personnel costs.

The task force has had a major impact on drug enforcement in Franklin County, particularly in curbing the production and distribution of methamphetamine in the county.

Hiring additional personnel doesn't just bring increased salary and benefits costs, Hillhouse mentioned. He pointed out that hiring new deputies also means necessary new equipment and vehicle purchases.

"We also don't want to become a training ground for St. Louis County," Hillhouse said. "We want to have the resources to be able to attract and retain quality people in the Sheriff's Department."

In addition to the need for more personnel, technology in the Sheriff's Department is woefully out of date, he said.

All of the computers in the Sheriff's Department are at least eight years old. County officials had looked at making some technology upgrades this year, but because of a need to hold down spending in a tight budget year, they were unable to include the expense in the 2007 fiscal year budget.

At the same time population growth has brought new demands for increased services throughout the county, revenues to the Sheriff's Department have decreased, Hillhouse said.

The county's overall sales tax collections were down last year, and the Sheriff's Department also collected about $300,000 less in reimbursements for housing state prisoners.

Hillhouse said the drop in reimbursement is through no fault of the county; the state simply is housing fewer prisoners at the county jail in Union.

Improvements also are needed at the county jail, repairs county officials have been putting off because of the cost.