A series of Quorum Court meetings last week ended with Justices voting in favor of the county holding a special election March 3 to extend the current county 1 percent sales tax for an additional 16 years.
At debate was the length of time for the tax extension, and apportionment of funding of monies raised by the tax revenue.
The meeting was actually held over two days, with the Thursday night Dec. 19 meeting, the regularly scheduled Quorum Court meeting, reserved for debate and discussion of the tax election. Earlier Van Buren County Judge Dale James had called for a special meeting Tuesday, Dec. 17, in order for the court to hear routine matters.
The Dec. 19 meeting was very well attended, with representatives of the community, including library supporters and representatives of area fire departments on hand to hear and comment on the election proposal. The Quorum Court meeting room was full, with extra chairs having been placed for those interested in the matter in debate. At least 100 people were on hand.
The sales tax extension, originally proposed by James in a presentation earlier this year, covered three areas: Funding of the library building, continued funding of the hospital and funding of fire departments in Van Buren County.
The extension proposed would continue the 1 percent sales tax currently in place for an additional 16 years, should voters approve. The time-span was a change of the proposed 30-year span written in the ordinance presented that evening.
The library building funding first came to public attention earlier this year when a presentation by the library board to the Quorum Court disclosed that the fund on hand were not enough to cover both operating expenses and the note on the library building – reflecting a change in mineral assessment regulations passed by the state legislature. The change of assessment in turn lowered the anticipated revenue as had been expected to meet library expenses.
While James had proposed including the library in the sales tax funding formula in his initial presentation earlier this year, it had been removed as the proposed special election ordinance was prepared. It’s re-addition to the proposal was in order to face its funding short-fall.
The library currently had a $330,000 bond payment due Jan. 2 while at the same time seeking re-financing of its bond, James told the court. Making the payment would leave the library without the funds needed for operation, the court was told.
A plan had been in place to secure re-financing for the library, but the expected partial default on the Jan. 2 payment would make that unlikely. A partial payment on the building would be considered the same as a default, the court was told.
Justice Nickie Brown told the court: “If the library has to make a whole payment it will not stay open…. I do not feel that is a good option for the city.”
With its inclusion on the sales tax ordinance, the library would have its building paid off in the first year of the 16 year tax span.
Ozark Medical Center hospital funding received little debate during the meeting. The sales tax had originally been put in place to provide for the hospital.
The tax as proposed would use 25 percent of the revenue specifically for hospital maintenance and operations.
Fire department funding was the most vigorous debate of the evening, providing the most public comment.
The need for increased funding for the 17 fire departments in the county in turn reflected a state law requiring all fire departments to have at least an ISO 6 rating by 2024. The proposed tax would allocate 50 percent of revenues to are fire departments.
Fire departments are assigned an ISO rating after assessment by an independent agency, give a score from 1 – 10. A 10 reflects an area with no fire department, while a 1 is a best-case score and fairly rare. Clinton Fire has an ISO 4 rating, while Chimes has an ISO 9 rate, reflecting the range of ISO ratings in the county.
A higher or lower score is used to assess fire insurance rates for building owners. A change in one point on ISO can save several hundred dollars a year for home owners.
While various factors are used in assessing ISO, a department’s equipment is an important factor, the court was told.
This led to debate over the length of the sales-tax ordinance term. Originally proposed for 30 years, Justice Virgil Lemmings presented an amendment to lower the term to 12 years. This was later revised to 16 years, as the board heard that the typical term on high-end equipment purchases, such as ladder trucks, are made for 15 years.
The 15 year cycle, held against a four-year vote cycle, resulted in the final 16 year ordinance term.
A second, more vigorous component of the debate was how funding would be apportioned. Justice Nickie Brown, joined by Justice Mary Phillips, proposed the funding disbursement be done on a graduated scale, much like the Act 833 funding currently used in the state.
Act 833 funding apportions money to fire departments based upon factors such as population. Under 833 funding, Clinton, or example, receives more money from the state than a more rural department such as Alread.
Brown and Phillips both, the latter speaking on behalf of her Fairfield Bay constituency, felt the best-case funding would bring a higher portion of the monies to Clinton and Fairfield Bay, reflecting the needs of those communities having larger buildings and need for more sophisticated fire-fighting equipment, with ladder trucks being used as an example.
The proposed amendment to follow the 833 model met with resistance on two points, the first being that it did not allow apportionment for emergency services such as rescue squad. The second, and this more implied, was that justices were obviously not comfortable voting for what would be lower fire department sales tax revenues for their district.
Brown told the justices that she had received numerous calls from Clinton residents who said they would no support the tax if it did not have a funding formula which favored more populated area.
Phillips made roughly the same statement, and was the only “no” vote for the ordinance. Phillips said after the meeting that the ordinance not having a 833-type formula would not be supported in Fairfield Bay, specifically citing input from the city’s mayor, Paul Wellenberger.