Gerald Jones, the former presiding Commissioner of Cape Girardeau County confirmed and expanded on many of the points raised in previous meetings examining whether St. Francois County should move from second to first class.
Jones presided over Cape during its transition from second to first class. One advantage to the change for them, Jones said, was having more local control.
“While the county commissioners will face many issues if you become a first class county, most changes to other county officials are relatively small and the general public won’t see many differences,” Jones said. “First class counties were at one time considered an arm of the state legislature. We have our distance now, but legislation has given first class counties more local control.”
One example Jones gave is that first class counties have more latitude to order audits any time they are needed, on any segment of government necessary. “Second class counties can order that through the county auditor, but it’s only every two years as a second class county. As first class, you can do it at least annually, and as often as you want to.”
First class counties have many ordinances they can pass. “Now don’t fear, that didn’t mean planning and zoning,” Jones hastened to add. That takes a vote of the public, regardless of the county’s class. A first class county is not required to have planning and zoning in effect. That is probably a concern to some individuals, but it is not required.”
Cape Girardeau attempted to add zoning to its existing planning ordinances after going first class. “We thought we had a good plan, one that was protecting the property rights of individuals, we thought it was a marvelous plan, and it was defeated 71 to 29. It went down like a rock. We had planning at the time but no zoning. We put it to a vote and they voted it all out. We don’t even have planning now. We are the only first class county that doesn’t have planning and zoning, but I wasn’t going to put that back on after that. We will get along just fine without it.”
Jones said citizens tend to be against planning and zoning, until something pops up in the neighborhood that they don’t want. He recalled two years later citizens wanted him to block two quarries from locating near a new school, but without planning and zoning, there was no means to do so.
In the years following its shift to first class, Cape has steered clear of any ordinance that comes close to planning and zoning.
“Most of your commissioners have a lot of common sense,” he said. “For instance, in there it says a first class county can adopt a plumbing code, well that gets close to planning and zoning so we didn’t do it. The voters spoke up one time loud and clear and we heard them.”
They did, however, eventually implement a sewer inspection program and a food code.
“The health department made their case well enough and took us out and showed us where installers were doing a very inadequate job,” he said. “There was septic running up in yards. That’s not a good deal.”
The food code started out as a two or three-inch thick document, Jones said, but after many public meetings and discussions with all parties affected, the county ended with something that was more like a half inch thick.
“The health department was very thankful and appreciative,” Jones said. “We didn’t cut their legs out from under them, but we also didn’t feel they needed to be as restrictive as they had proposed. And we have an excellent health department, I would add.”
Jones acknowledged versions of many of the ordinances he was mentioning can also be passed by second class counties, but suggested the scope is a little bit broader than for second class.
No new taxes without voter approval
Jones also confirmed there are no new taxes allowed when a county becomes first class. “Any kind of tax increase requires a vote of the public,” he said. “Not the commission.”
Prior to the meeting Jones had requested information about St. Francois County’s existing taxes, salaries and other financial details.
He was surprised by the county’s tax rate. “Yours is 7 and a half cents,” he said. “I never heard of anyone having it that low. That is unbelievably low. I’m not saying you should make it higher. I know there are roll back provisions, but uh, boy, nobody has any fusses about taxes here.”
Cape County has gone to 100 percent sales tax income and forgone all property tax. “We live on sales tax,” he said. “If it goes down, we’re in trouble, but we’re not in trouble right now. Even during this slow time, we are staying at 2 percent growth, which is adequate and OK. Some counties are 18 percent behind though, and that’s not OK.”
Jones pointed out the current statutes allow second class counties to set a general fund levy of up to 50 cents per $100 assessed and that first class can only assess a levy 35 cents per $100 assessed.
If the county were to raise the levy to 35 cents, that would be a big jump over the usual, of course, but at the last meeting it was pointed out by Ivan Schrader that under certain provisions of the law, counties actually can’t generally collect more than whatever has been the customary amount without a vote of the people, regardless of what the maximum levy is.
Jones noted the concerns of many citizens that St. Francois County will become like Jefferson County with many more rules and regulations. “I don’t think you have to worry about that,” Jones said. It was pointed out Jefferson County is actually a charter form of county government, not just a first class county.
“People don’t want government involved in their lives,” Jones acknowledged, “but government is already involved in our lives and you may not have noticed it. They handle all the elections from the smallest to the largest, presidential, school board, city councils … Roads and bridges are all handled by the county and almost 100 percent of county roads are paved here, which is really unusual. You collect taxes for all the government entities and distribute them back. In Cape county, 8 percent of all property taxes collected go to the schools. I don’t think we can argue that schools need the money to educate our children, our future citizens.
“The county is also responsible for emergency management and 911, if there is a big disaster of some sort, a tornado, a flood, an earthquake, the county is responsible for handling that. County law enforcement takes care of all the concerns mainly out in the county and in small towns and unincorporated areas. There is a juvenile department, an industrial development authority for economic development … Those are just some of the services the county offers.
“County government is the most responsive level of government there is. These people answer to you every day. They are your neighbors. If you don’t want the county to do those things, how would you like it if the state or federal government did it? What I’m trying to say is you have a good county government in all levels and all offices and from the outside looking in, they seem responsive to you and do their jobs.”
Salaries and first class status
Jones also talked about salaries. Moving to first class status gives counties a one-time chance to adjust the rate structure for all office holders through a salary commission. The salary commission would be composed of all the elected county officials, and their meeting is required to be posted and open to the public.
“You can take a look at the whole picture. Maybe everyone should be adjusted one way or the other,” he said. “That’s up to your salary commission to decide. But remember, the salaries attract adequate choices for the public to make.”
Jones said he felt St. Francois County commissioners are underpaid for the amount of work they are doing. “It’s fine if you just want to get another retired person,” he said. “But they are going to have a lot more issues and decisions before them than they do now if they are doing this job right.”
Harold Gallagher asked if first class status leads to bigger government.
“I don’t think so,” Jones said. “We tried to be very careful about how intrusive we’d be in people’s daily lives. You gotta have elections, collect taxes and do roads. We have a juvenile department and so on … we try to be non-intrusive.”
Another person asked about changes to the Road and Bridge department, how much more expensive having a highway administrator would be.
“It says that when you get first class you need a highway administrator, well we just took the guy in charge of the road and bridge to start with, who was our highway engineer. He was the boss. We quit calling him the highway engineer and called him the highway administrator,” Jones said. The pay didn’t even have to change, he added.
Changing the laws governing counties
Another citizen wanted to know how the county could get term limits on county office holders. Jones explained that counties don’t have the authority to make that change, it would have to come down through the state legislature.
“I will tell you, I think that’s a bad idea, but you can use your own ideas,” he said. “It’s your county. Some people treat these elected jobs as if it’s some kind of part-time thing but it’s not something to do on a lark. You’ve got a recorder of 26 years, he is a very professional recorder. This is what he does to make a living. He has chosen a job where if you don’t like what he is doing you can vote him out every four years. Those are their term limits. Every four years, they have to stand for reelection. Obviously you think he is doing a good job, or you wouldn’t put him back into office. Term limits are not a good idea for county government. I think it’s a terrible idea for state legislators, too. Just my opinion, and I’ll tell you why … by the time they learn where the bathrooms are they’ve been there two or three years. By time they are almost ready to term out, they are just figuring out how it all works.”
There was some additional back and forth on the advantages of term limits. “Obviously I am against it and some of you are for it,” Jones said. “That is perfectly fine, pursue it through the proper channels, that would be the state legislature.”
Jones added one of the most important jobs of commissioners is to be very aware of what is taking place in the state legislature. “When they are in Jeff city you better be there, or they are going to pass some stupid legislation that’s going to affect you and they don’t even know it. They don’t intend to hurt county government, they don’t know that they’re doing it. So you have to keep up with it. You’ve got to be watchful.”
Opening doors to Economic Development
Jones said the prestige factor of being first can open doors for economic development.
“It is somewhat prestigious. But I don’t mean that like your going to walk down the street strutting, but it just helps open a few more doors. Economic development, as you know, any little door you can open a crack is a plus, it’s a benefit. It might give you an edge in recruitment.
“You’re the only county in the state who has the choice whether to go first class, ” he added, and credited Presiding Commissioner Dr. David Cramp for making that choice possible. The county was on track to be first class by the end of the year, but the state legislature raised the threshold, which meant St. Francois County would no longer qualify to be first class and under the initial version of the legislation might even have been dropped to third class. That particular aspect has since been fixed and no second class counties are any more in danger of dropping to third, but Cramp asked at the time that the legislature give the county a choice of whether to go first class. He didn’t want to risk becoming third class county, which has many more restrictions than a second class county.
“St. Francois County has a great opportunity to flourish as a first class county. I don’t know how the commission is going to vote, but if they vote not to go, then you’re going to be second class for many, many years. The new level is $900 million, maybe it is 925, and it goes up so much a year based on a cost of living adjustment. You are 657 now … With cost of living that will just get further and further away from you. So you have that kind of thing facing you.”
A member of the audience said the county’s budget could not afford the kind of salaries being made in Cape. There was general agreement from commissioners about that and Jones stressed he had not been saying St. Francois should increase rates that much.
Cramp said the salary commission sets the salaries and he has only one vote on that, but added the commission does the budget. “So you’re not going to see $70,000 salaries,” Cramp said. “We can’t financially afford that.”
Cramp mentioned again how he had already financially prepared the county to take on first class status prior to the legislature raising the threshold and giving the county a reprieve. “We had already triggered first class status,” Cramp said.
To prepare, contracts were renegotiated, expenses were cut, hiring was frozen. “I started whacking stuff,” Cramp said. “I cut county government as lean as I can get it.”
That was when he was expecting large increases in costs for mandatory equalization of salaries. In fact, according to what experts have told them in the last two meetings, the move to first class will not necessarily cost any thing beyond what the county would do anyway.
Cramp added that he would stick up for the job county officials do.
“When I came here I heard all the stories about our elected officials not coming to work, not doing anything, and how easy it was. That’s nonsense. They come here, they work hard, they do a hell of a job and I will go to my grave — I am never running again, I’m out the door — but I’m telling you the god’s truth, I swear on my father’s grave that I’m telling you the truth, they are wonderful. You are extremely fortunate to have the people in the county working that you do.”
Another citizen said he wanted to see salary increases put to a vote of the people.
“In Washington, they vote themselves a raise or get one automatically by not voting,” he said. “I would like to see it passed on to everyone in the general public.”
“It’s not written up that way,” Jones said.
“Just like Washington,” the citizen said. “You can vote yourself a raise.”
Jones pointed out that is another issue that would have to be changed through the state legislature. The county commission cannot set itself up differently than the law allows.
To the issue of salaries, Associate Commissioner Bret Burgess said he also may not run for another term. “If you hold down the pay too much you won’t be able to attract young people to the job,” he said. “I don’t think county government always ran smoothly, and I’m happy to see the changes we have made, and I hope we don’t go backwards, and I’m concerned politically about too much pay … but the salary does need to be fair enough to attract good people. This job is just not enough income to provide for a family.”
Committee members speak
Al Sullivan, a member of the ad hoc committee that helped the commission examine first class status, said he had taken a look at all the first class counties in the state and to him the decision looks as easy as “falling off a log.”
“After all, you’re going to fall off it one way or the other, Sullivan said. “We are the 17th most populous county in the state counting Kansas City and St. Louis County,” he said. “There are three other counties way below us in population who are first class. Taney with 51,000, Calloway with their nuclear plant is 44, Camden County, Lake of the Ozarks is 44. I don’t want to put words in Commissioner Jones’ mouth, but I picked up from what he told us, there is no magic in the statute, you can’t do anything great, but it is a perception situation. Looking down the road, and I have a lot of gray hair, I’d like the County Commission to consider positioning this county to attract more economic development. These consultants going around are not located in Missouri. They look at the state, they look at the class of county. No it’s not magic, but it’s an impact. I ask you to fall forward as you come off that log.”
Norm Lucas, also a committee member, felt there were two main threats facing the county.
“If with first class county we wind up with other first class counties who have more weight and more representation in the state legislature, I believe we stand a greater chance of retaining as many options as we possibly can have if we go first class and join the ranks of the big dogs.
“The second threat I see is internal and we’ve seen, as Bret has mentioned, past commissions not do as well as this commission in terms of integrity and organization. I fear that a threat to our county exists in that if we allow by staying second class, the county commission to be the lowest paid office holders, if we allow for people to get in there as commissioners because of lack of competition, we allow people to get in there who are not like you gentleman who naively thought this will be easy and can do a good service to the community. Maybe some would come in thinking, I’ll find some other way to remunerate myself off the books. I’m not saying that’s always going to be the case, but it’s an internal threat.
“In terms of both external and internal threat handling, it’s my opinion that we should go first class. Not that I believe there is any magic to that, I just think it gives us a measure control over our own fate that we otherwise would not have.”
Another citizen said he fears first class status will open a Pandora’s box of taxes and fees. “I’m going to be moving to Reynold’s county,” he said. “I’m sure it won’t be while you’re here, maybe five, 10 years from now.”
“Why would you think taxes will go up?” Cramp asked.
“Because of all the first class things going on.”
“You know we can’t raise taxes without a vote right? Do you think people will raise taxes in our county?”
“I don’t know they might.”
Decision not due until June
Cramp said the decision for or against first class status will not be made right away. The commission has time to continue learning about the matter. They don’t need to notify the state auditor until June about their decision.
“It’s not set in my mind yet,” Cramp said.
Cramp indicated he will continue to review the matter and learn about the statutes before making any decision.
Renee can be reached at 573-431-2010 ext 117 or firstname.lastname@example.org