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County plans to add public safety sales tax to April 7 ballot

The Cape Girardeau County Commission approved putting a half-cent public safety sales tax increase on the ballot on April 7. Sheriff Ruth Ann Dickerson said the increase is necessary, as officers are currently underpaid, equipment needs to be replaced and the jail is in disrepair.

Dickerson added that her office currently has a turnover rate of about 30 percent, with many officers going to other local law enforcement agencies that pay more. The starting salary for officers is $36,000 at the Jackson Police Department and $38,000 at the Cape Girardeau Police Department. The Sheriff’s office starting salary is currently $32,219.

“It’s a struggle and disheartening that as a first class county, we can’t even get up to the local standard of pay,” Dickerson said. She added that when officers leave, the Sheriff’s office loses the training they provided them, as well as their knowledge and contacts with the community.

She added that the salary disparity is even greater for officers at the county jail. Jail certified officers are paid $28,000, while corrections officers are paid $26,000. Dickerson said her department struggles to get applications for these positions and these officers “face the same actions, the same fights, the same people as patrol officers on the street.”

“As we move forward with the minimum wage standards, unless we address the minimum wage, we’ll possibly have some employees in our office who won’t even be making minimum wage in a couple of years,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson added that, besides the lower pay, both the patrol officers and jail are understaffed. She said that there should be at least five patrol officers on every shift, but the county currently is only able to have four on a shift.

“We basically figured out we need at least 25 officers to cover the street coverage at the very minimum,” Dickerson said. “With the staff that we have today, we are at least short five officers. Every time we send those officers out there, they are at risk because we might not have the backup that they need when they are taking those calls.”

Similarly, the jail would need to add at least seven more officers to be able to have the recommended coverage for all shifts.

The sheriff’s office handles more than 25,000 incidents each year and makes 1,700 assists to the city’s police departments. The office also serves civil papers and garnishments throughout the county.

“Our officers are responding into the city municipal entities because they’re taking calls when their officers are tied up,” Dickerson said. “If they have incidents where they need additional officers to respond, that is what we are doing.”

Dickerson said that the office has also not been able to keep up with equipment costs, with several patrol officers currently sharing vehicles. “They have to wait for each other to roll in from one shift before they can have a vehicle to roll out on their shift,” she explained.

The department currently has 15 patrol vehicles, shared by 19 officers. The average age of the vehicles is 4.5 years old, and they have an average of 84,000 miles on them. A deputy averages 80-120 miles per shift, and three of the vehicles have more than 200,000 miles on them.

“There’s been times where we’ve had accidents where a car gets damaged and there’s no money in the budget to replace that vehicle, so that means that we have to double up the officers even more, even three officers to a car,” Dickerson said.

She added that the office had been attempting to replace three vehicles a year, but the budget for new vehicles is currently coming out of a reserve that will run out of funds at the end of the year.

“We don’t want to have to tell the victim that we are waiting on a wrecker to come and pick up our patrol car because it’s in such bad shape that we can’t get there,” Dickerson said.

In addition, the jail is in need of some repairs. The jail currently houses between 220 and 285 inmates daily, but Dickerson said the building wasn’t built to house that many people. In addition, the 20-year-old building is now in need of more maintenance than it previously did, but there are no additional funds to keep up.

“The building repairs have not kept up to pace, because the budget hasn’t been increased,” Dickerson said. That building is getting older, the repairs are getting more frequent, but we are not getting any more funding for those building repairs.”

Dickerson said there are areas of the jail that are deteriorating, and the quick fixes done in the past need to be redone. Several repairs have left behind security risks, where elements remained exposed that could be used as weapons or tools by inmates.

“We are addressing a few issues now, but there’s continuously more issues that will need to be addressed,” Dickerson said.

She estimated that the county currently spends more than $900,000 a year to run the jail, not including salaries. The county spends about $95,000 on building repairs, $255,000 on utilities, $300,000 on inmate’s medical costs and $240,000 on feeding the inmates.

Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy added that some of the funding issues are the result of the State of Missouri not reimbursing the county for housing and feeding the inmates.

“It probably costs us about $40 a day [to feed each inmate],” Tracy said. “The statute says the state is supposed to pay us up to $37, and they’ve negotiated a rate with us of 22.58 a day per prisoner. They’re not paying that, so right now they owe us about $600,000.”

Tracy said the “state is passing along a tax to the local citizens,” because the county is obligated to house and feed the inmates who violated state laws. “We have to run a bed and breakfast.”

Commissioner Paul Koeper added, “They broke a state law and were put in there by state judges, but we have to house them because by state law we have to provide a county jail. It is a satellite state prison, I don’t care what you call it – it’s what we’re running here.”

The sheriff’s office currently has a 2020 budget of $6.7 million, with $1.5 million coming from Proposition 1 revenue. Overall revenues continue to be reduced, with Prop 1 funding dropping over the past several years and sales taxes remaining stable.

Tracy added that this would be only the fourth time the county asked the public for additional taxes in the past 41 years – once in 1979, Proposition 1 in 2006 and the use tax in 2014.

“I think everyone is tax adverse,” Tracy said. “We’re not happy about that, but the cost of business goes up. You can’t operate the sheriff’s office with what we operated on 10 or 20 years ago.”

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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