Over the next two months, Taney County elected officials will work to educate county residents on the purpose of a proposed Taney County Law Enforcement Sales Tax and how the funds generated from that tax will impact county services, through a series of four town hall style meetings
The county’s current law enforcement sales tax of one-eighths of one percent was passed in November 2005 and will sunset on Dec. 31, 2022. On Tuesday, April 7, county residents will be asked to vote on whether the county shall repeal the current sales tax and impose a new sales tax increase of three-eighths of one percent, for a period of 15 years.
Town hall meetings will be held on Monday, Feb. 17 at 6 p.m. at the Forsyth High School Performing Arts Center in Forsyth; on Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. at the Pointe Royale Clubhouse in Branson; on Thursday, March 12 at 6 p.m. at the OTC Table Rock Campus in Hollister; and Monday, March 16 at 6 p.m. at the Kirbyville Middle School in Kirbyville.
At these meetings, county officials will explain how the money brought in by this proposed sales tax will be used to support capital improvements, equipment and operations of the sheriff’s department, jail, prosecuting attorney’s office and juvenile office. Taney County Sheriff Jimmie Russell explained that with an ever increasing jail population, a new housing units for the jail will need to be constructed in the near future.
“We can hold 268. In 2018 we hit 292 inmates. So we we’re having to double up in cells, put people on the floor to sleep on the floor. We have since, due to some bonding changes and stuff this year, we’ve dropped down to 200. But those numbers are slowly creeping back up.”
Bond payments are still currently being made on the Taney County Judicial Center. But once the last payment is made in 2023, Russell said he is hopeful that the county commission will then create a savings account that can be used to pay for a new housing unit when that day comes.
“I contacted the people that did the ones we currently have and … they said an estimate of building it in today’s market would be $8 million. I said that we’re looking at probably four or five years down the road, and they said you can figure on probably $9 million or so with the increases.”
A new housing unit will hold an additional 125 prisoners. Russell said the facilities kitchen, laundry and other facilities were designed to support 500 prisoner’s, so no updates will be needed in those areas to accommodate additional prisoners.
Russell also said he’d like to be able to offer better wages to Taney County deputies and dispatchers, as they are currently paid more than $5,000 less than what Branson and other area city and county agencies pay.
“We can’t draw any applications because we’re not paying competitively with these other agencies around,” he said. “We’ve got to get to where we’re paying competitively and we’ve got competitive benefits and everything to draw applicants for people looking for work. There’s fewer and fewer people going into the law enforcement field.”
In the last 20 years, calls for service in Taney County have increased from around 3,000 to nearly 13,500 in 2019. In that time period, the total number of road deputies on staff has only increased by two. Russell said, to meet the full needs of the county, an additional 18 deputies are needed.
“I would like to see all of our patrol cars have two officers in them for the safety of the officer, so that they’ve got help right there on the scene. Then we’d only have to respond with one car,” said Russell. “With the number of calls that we’re taking and the number of emergency calls we’re on, there’s a lot of times that we’re having to delay those officers from responding to other calls. Sometimes it’s for several hours before they can respond to somebody’s call, and we need to be able to eliminate that.”
Russell said he would also like to hire at least six more people to work in the jail, as they are currently only able to have one jailer at a time be in charge of watching 125 inmates.
Like many counties in Missouri, Taney County is also facing several unfunded state mandates. Russell said the state does not pay any medical expenses for state-held prisoners, which amounts to an annual expense in excess of $300,000.
“Once a person’s incarcerated, if they’re on Medicaid or Medicare or anything like that, then that all goes away,” Russell said. “Their insurances and stuff do not pay, so it’s all left upon the taxpayers of Taney County to pay those expenses, and it can be a great expense. As our numbers continue to increase, that expense is going to continue increasing as well.”
Russell added that another funding challenge facing the county jail is a result of many mental health facilities in the state being shut down in the last decade, so it takes a few months before a bed can be made available for a prisoner who has been committed.
“We have a lot of mental health issues in our jails that go from drug addictions to suicides to just people that are unable to rationally think for themselves. Our jails have become more of a mental health facility, in a lot of instances, than they are a jail facility,” Russell said. “So that is an expense to the county that is continuing to increase and continuing to happen.”
Unlike the current law enforcement sales tax, the funds generated by this proposed tax, if passed, would be used to also fund both the prosecutor and juvenile offices.
“What I’d really like to have for the office is an additional assistant prosecuting attorney,” said Taney County Prosecutor William Duston. “Currently our case load is running, including myself and the four assistant prosecutors we have now, at over 800 cases a year, which is almost really an unmanageable amount.”
Duston added that an additional legal clerk to assist them with the legal work for trial preparation would also be a big help for the office, as well as being able to offer competitive salaries.
“For example, back in 2018, three-fourths of the bar-licensed attorneys in this office left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere,” Duston said. “The problem you run into is getting somebody with a bar license to come down and be an assistant prosecutor. They’ve got the financial burden of that law school application and you’re not able to compensate them enough to take care of those student loans.”
Due to the ever-increasing case load and the lack of staff, Duston said he worries about how he’s going to share that burden with his assistant prosecutors.
“Having some help in that area would mean the world to me and knowing that I’m providing the services to the folks in the county that need those services that sometimes I worry we’re not able to give them,” Duston said. “So those are the kinds of things I’d be looking for and how I hope this would help me provide a better service to the folks I need to provide that too.”
Taney County Chief Juvenile Officer Bart Owen said the needs of the juvenile office also relate to staffing, as the department is in need of extra support staff.
“We are six juvenile officers short to be at full staff, and we do have the 17 Raise The Age that takes effect at the beginning of this next year in 2021,” said Owen.
In 2018, the state of Missouri raised the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18, which means, instead of being charged as an adult, 17-year-olds will now be placed into juvenile custody.
“We don’t know how it will increase our case load,” Owen said. “It could double it. It may not double it, but there’s no way to gauge those 17-year-olds because no one’s kept the statistics of how many 17-year-olds are getting charged with stuff in municipalities, in the counties and state that’s going to end up coming to us.”
An elected county official will also be speaking at the Taney County Federated Republican Women’s meeting on Thursday, Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Downing Street Pour House in Hollister and at the Hollister City Council Meeting on Thursday, March 5 at 7 p.m. at the Hollister City Hall for anyone who cannot attend a town hall meeting.
“If you spend $10,000 a year, it will cost you $37.50, whereas currently it’s costing you $12.50,” said Russell. “So it’s a $25 increase if you spend $10,000 a year on taxable items, which doesn’t include gasoline, prescription medications, your utility bills and things like that. Most people will never spend $10,000.”
A nearly identical law enforcement sales tax was proposed during the April 2019 election. That proposal did not include a sunset date and failed by 239 votes.