Officials in Cass County are asking voters to consider a county-wide quarter-percent sales tax increase this April, a potential stream of revenue that law enforcement say is desperately needed to hire more deputies and personnel in a growing population.
The tax increase, which would amount to one-fourth of a penny per dollar spent, is similar to what voters narrowly rejected last April, but this time around, officials say they want to make it clear: Revenue from the potential sales tax increase would bring more dollars to the sheriff’s department, as well as the prosecuting attorney’s office, to add more manpower, including deputies, attorneys, clerks and a dispatcher. The proposed sales tax, Question No. 1 on the ballot, would generate an estimated $3 million per year.
During a meeting with media March 9, Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber, who took office in January, described a “dire” situation at the sheriff’s office. As of March 9, Weber said 16 positions within the sheriff’s office were vacant, including 14 deputy jobs. Many of the vacancies, he said, were due to employees leaving for other better-paying law enforcement jobs in the area. The agency said its paid time off is limited. Over several years, Weber said employees in his office have logged more than 22,000 hours of unpaid and unused vacation and holiday time.
“The deputies have done such a good job with the limited resources they have that most people don’t see on a day-to-day basis how hard it is and how bad it’s getting because these men and women come in on their days off,” Weber said.
“We’re on the edge of not being able to keep pace with what’s going on because we’re so short. If this doesn’t pass, I’m afraid we’re going to get even shorter. We’re just looking to protect our people and make it a good community.”
The sheriff’s office said the demand for its services has gone up. It’s seen a 100 percent increase in calls for service and incidents since 1999. In addition, the sheriff’s office said it’s not keeping pace with rising costs to operate the jail, and said its current inmate-to-deputy ratio is 35 to 1.
If the sales tax initiative passes on April 4, Weber said the funding would be used to fill the employment gap, and once again, continue its step-salary plan. He also said the funding would allow his office to hire enough staff so others could take paid time off. The overall need, Weber said, is for more deputies to protect, and remain in, Cass County.
“While we may not be able to pay or provide the benefits that some other agencies are, (job satisfaction) is what we’re able to offer the employees here,” Weber said. “Coupled with the environment that we try to build for them in this organization, we don’t have any doubt that we’ll get the high quality people we’ve had in the past and that we expect to get in the future.”
In a letter to Cass County residents, the three-member county commission described the county’s lack of law enforcement resources as one of its greatest challenges, with a growing population. Data provided by the Missouri Office of Administration ranks Cass County as No. 8 in its 10 largest projected population increases from 2000 to 2030.
By 2030, the state estimates that Cass County will have a population of nearly 137,000. The current resources between the sheriff’s office and prosecuting attorney’s office, the county argues, are not nearly enough to serve a growing population.
Ben Butler, the county prosecutor, said some revenue from the law enforcement sales tax would be used to also help his office offer better victim services as well as add and retain legal talent to review and file cases more quickly.
“If the tax passes, we can expect more revenue toward adding full-time prosecutors, plus salary adjustments,” Butler said, adding the greatest need is for two more prosecutors and another clerk. “That would get us where we need to be because case loads to the 10 attorneys who are here are high.”
While each case is handled professionally and corners aren’t cut, Butler points to the speed of the cases being reviewed in Cass County.
“Where we can do better and what the revenue would allow us to do better at is reviewing cases quicker.”
The prosecuting attorney also said he’s also hoping to see more money devoted to victim services in Cass County. The office said it currently has three advocates who are there to talk with crime victims and walk them through the court process.
If voters approve the sales tax on April 4, Weber said the county would not start collecting the tax until the last quarter of the year. In support of the tax, the sheriff’s office set up a website outlining its needs at www.cassmosheriff.org/safe. A sample ballot is available on the Cass County Clerk’s web page.
“If we can get our message out of what the needs are and why, then I think people will support us because they’re supporting themselves,” Weber said. “They want their property values to stay high and we want to make sure that happens. I feel very good about what our message is why we need it, I just hope that enough people will hear it.”