A proposal to extend the county sales tax for 20 years, first presented to the Quorum Court at its regular meeting earlier this month, demonstrates a go-forward plan for county emergency services.
The Quorum Court had the opportunity to vote on an ordinance which would extend the county quarter of a cent sales tax, set to expire this year, for 30 years. The sales tax was originally proposed for, and currently funds, Ozark Health, the county hospital and nursing center.
The ordinance presented at the Thursday night meeting would change the funding profile of the revenue, maintaining a quarter of the amount for the hospital, a quarter for 911 and emergency services, and the remaining half for Fire Department and Rescue Squad funding.
Van Buren County Judge Dale James said the funding in support of fire services is especially important in light of state-mandated requirements for fire departments.
The state has mandated departments must have an ISO rating of 6 or lower by 2024.
An ISO rating is the result of an audit of a department determining its ability to provide service. The lower the ISO rating, in turn, creates lower insurance rates for home and business owners.
James pointed out that a lower fire rating could save homeowners in rural parts of the county several hundred dollars a year in insurance cost, more than offsetting the sales tax cost.
The fire department support was part of the 30-year decision, James said, as equipment upgrades often require long-term payouts as much as 10 years for, for example, a ladder truck.
When the sales tax extension was originally proposed earlier in the year, the point was made at that time that roughly 60 percent of the sales tax is paid by visitors to the area. At the same time the sales tax had already been in place for a number of years, a requirement for the hospital/nursing center to receive its funding.
The original presentation proposing that the sales tax be extended was made at the library. At the times James, in making the presentation, stated that the first year of the tax extension would be used to fund the library and pay off its building bond. Library funding is no longer part of the proposal and was not a component of what was presented to the Quorum Court for vote.
The Quorum Court vote on the ordinance was for a special election during the March primaries on the sales tax extension. It was tabled at that meeting as justices pointed out the specific language in the ordinance which showed the money allocation for rural fire was not included in the document.
James, at the time, said this was an oversight, an assertion he repeated in a post-court-meeting interview.
The problem, James said, was the nature of a sales tax special election, and an ordinance supporting it, required very specific and very detailed language. An ordinance of this type was such that a law firm which specialized in such matters was used to draw it up. In the back-and-forth of the ordinance being drawn up the specifics on funding allocation was inadvertently omitted, James said.
He apologized to the court for the language being omitted. The language will be added to the revised ordinance, which will be presented for vote at the next Quorum Court meeting.
Justices indicated they would be in favor of the special election, indicating ordinance passage.
Justice Brian Tatum, active in emergency services, spoke in favor of the ordinance and its ability, when passed by voters, to provide stable funding for fire and emergency services: “This potentially could be the best thing for emergency services in the 31 years I’ve been doing this,” he told the court at the meeting as the ordinance was being discussed.
Tatum also encouraged anyone with questions or considerations about the ordinance, or taxes, or funding, to pick up the phone.
“If you have a question, call your JP, call your judge,” he said. “There are some sites out there where people are negative, they won’t call you on the phone to get the correct answer.”
Tatum did not site a specific website.
The revised ordinance is expected for vote at the next Quorum Court meeting, Dec. 19. Passage at that meeting would put the special election on the March ballot during the primaries.
James was very careful of his language regarding the utility of the ordinance, since his position does not allow outright political endorsement.
“This [ordinance passage and subsequent sales tax extension] would position Van Buren County for long-term success in crucial emergency services operations,” he said.