By MARY POLETTI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PALMYRA, Mo. -- Marion County voters will decide this spring whether to renew the county's 3/8-cent capital improvements sales tax after the Marion County Commission on Monday ordered the tax to the April ballot.
The tax generates $1.3 million annually for road and bridge projects, law enforcement, county building repair and equipment. Without the tax, Western District Commissioner Randy Spratt said, county finances will be left in the lurch.
"A considerable amount of our budget would disappear," Spratt said at Monday's commission meeting. "You fill in the blanks."
Although the tax does not expire until 2014, Presiding Commissioner Lyndon Bode said the commission is trying to be proactive about renewing it.
The 3/8-cent tax is part of an overall 7/8-cent sales tax for county revenue, which equals out to 8.6 cents on a $10 purchase. The other component of the county sales tax rate is a half-cent sales tax for the county's general fund, providing for day-to-day county operations.
Bode said Marion County's sales tax rate is the lowest in Northeast Missouri.
The commission cited numerous new bridges, road upgrades, a new county highway building, the construction of Veterans Road in Hannibal and the hiring of seven law enforcement officers as previous products of revenue from the capital improvements sales tax in particular, which was initiated in 2001.
With bonds set to be paid off in 2014 for the highway barn and Veterans Road, Eastern District Commissioner Bobby Heiser said he expects more tax money to become available that year.
County officials focused on aging equipment and maintenance problems at the Marion County Jail during a discussion of priority future uses for the sales tax revenue.
Heiser said the county, which has tightened its belt substantially in the down economy, has bought no new highway equipment in this budget year except a $137,500 excavator whose purchase the commission approved Monday.
A failure to provide up-to-date equipment for county highway workers in particular, Heiser said, is "jeopardizing not only (employees') health, but their life and safety."
The Marion County Sheriff's Department likewise needs to undertake some upgrades, Sheriff Jimmy Shinn said. The department has not purchased new squad cars in four years, and the jail needs numerous repairs, including a new roof and some work on faulty electronic locks.
Shinn also hinted that the tax is a deciding factor in the county's ability to provide around-the-clock patrols.
The county also has road maintenance to consider, with its roughly 100 miles of blacktop roads in need of repairs.
"The expense to keep the blacktop in a working condition, let alone a good condition, has become very expensive," Spratt said.
The county still has 34 bridges left in its Bridge Replacement Off-system (BRO) program, which draws on federal and state funds to fix bridges on county roads as a sort of county equivalent of the Missouri Department of Transportation's Safe and Sound Bridges program.
The total cost of those bridges is $12.4 million, Land Use and Capital Improvements Coordinator Teya Stice said. Approximately $1 million of that will go toward upcoming work on the Masterson Bridge over the North River on County Road 189 south of Philadelphia.
As those costs mount, the county's incoming cash flow has been slumping, Heiser said.
"Our revenues are dwindling," he said. "Our participation in state funding has drastically decreased."
Bode said a renewed tax should pay for the needed work and equipment, but cautioned that careful planning will be necessary and that not every need can be met immediately.
The commission plans to hold voter forums as election day, April 3, draws closer.
It also will hold its annual budget hearing at 10 a.m. Jan. 17 at the Marion County Courthouse in Palmyra.