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Greene County Commission hears heated debate on proposed sales tax hike for law enforcement

It was standing-room-only at the Greene County Commission meeting on Monday

October 03, 2011|by Jay Scherder, KY3 News | jscherder@ky3.com

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. --  A hot topic of debate on Monday in front of the Greene County Commission was how to deal with jail overcrowding and other law enforcement needs.  An advisory panel supports a sales tax increase.  A public forum brought out nearly a hundred people, some who support and some who oppose asking voters for a tax hike.

Presiding Commissioner Jim Viebrock has said publicly that he does not favor a tax increase. The commissioners as a whole do recognize something has to be done, but no decision was made on exactly what to do. The commissioners heard plenty of passionate speakers who weighed in on the issue.

"Everyone wants law enforcement, everyone wants security, but rarely do they want to pay for it," said former Greene County Sheriff Jack Merritt.

"The people that elected you have the right to vote and you need to give them the right to vote, so let's put it on the ballot," said business owner Joe Jenkins.

"People don't like to provide blank checks when they vote," said anti-tax speaker Carl Herd.

The debate at the packed house was about whether to put on the ballot a 1/4-percent sales tax for more jailers, sheriff's deputies, and prosecutors, as well as expanding the jail.

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"I believe in fiscal responsibility but I also believe there are times when we have to invest in what is required," said pro-tax speaker Gail Melgren.

According to a two-year update to the Safety and Justice Roundtable Report, jail overcrowding has reached a crisis level.

"The sheriff has to send inmates out of the jail to other counties when we reach a certain level that would be unsafe," said Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson. "That costs the county. We haven't budgeted for that."

Patterson says, so far this year, more than $60,000 has been spent.  The number could reach $120,000 by the end of the year.

"Clearly the jail is the expensive symptom of the problem, but you can't just fix that.  We must accelerate cases through the justice system," he said.

The majority of those in attendance agree something needs to be done, but they do not agree on the approach.

"If you say no to supporting these people, you are placing their lives in danger," Merritt said about law enforcement.

"What guarantee do we have it's going to go where it is supposed to go?" asked anti-tax speaker Edward Mahoney.

Now the ball is in the commissioners' court. They have to make a decision on whether to move forward and put the issue on the ballot sometime next year.

"It's an issue the commission will have to weigh carefully," said Associate Commissioner Harold Bengsch, "but the one thing we cannot do is say, 'Well, we are going to do nothing.'"

The cost of putting this issue on the ballot at a special election could be somewhere near $120,000.  Commissioners say they want to examine this carefully before making a decision.

This measure could have gone to voters in November had the county commission signed off on the idea.  They stopped that from happening in August without a formal vote because Viebrock was convinced it wouldn't pass at a special election in November.

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