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Saline County board to ask voters for sales tax hike

 
By Travis DeNeal tdeneal@dailyregister.com
updated: 8/21/2018 2:44 PM

SALINE COUNTY -- County board members, citing a $900,000 budget deficit and a need for more money to support public safety, will ask voters in November to approve an increase in the county sales tax.

The hike, if passed, would raise the total sales tax in Saline County from 8 percent to 8.75 percent. Of that total, 6.25 percent goes to the state, while the county's portion would rise from 1.75 percent to 2.5 percent.

County board President Jay Williams said the initiative, if passed at the November general election, will ultimately keep the county from raising property taxes.

"We have problems in the county, financial problems, and we're trying to find ways to balance the budget," Williams said.

Specifically, the tax increase would add money to the county's public safety department. Currently, of the county's 1.75 percent sales tax, 0.75 of 1 cent is dedicated to public safety, and the $1.4 million to $1.5 million it produces each year goes directly to the Saline County Sheriff's Office budget.

The sheriff's budget is about $1.8 million each year, and so about $300,000 to $400,000 comes from the general fund to make up the difference.

The increased sales tax would raise about another $1.4 million annually for public safety, officials said.

There are two different ways the increased tax revenue could be used. All of the additional money could go to the sheriff's office budget, in which case the sheriff would take over responsibility for paying its employees' health insurance premiums. Currently, all county employee insurance premiums are paid by the general fund.

Or, the money could be appropriated to the state's attorney's office, judges' office and circuit clerk's office.

"Those offices all deal with public safety," Budget Committee Chairman Joe Jackson said.

Jackson and Williams are adamant that without additional revenue, the Saline County will be required to cut services.

It's not an attractive option, Williams said.

"Right now, we're down to six deputies, and we might lose one or two more in the next few weeks," he said. "Hopefully, we can put some more deputies on the road. Right now, crime rates are going up."

Besides raising more money for public safety, the additional sales tax would allow funds being spent on public safety now to be diverted to cover Saline County's anticipated $900,000 budget shortfall.

Jackson said the two largest financial liabilities for the county are severance payments to employees who retire or leave and a massive increase in the county's health insurance premiums it provides for its employees.

Jackson and Williams said the county is contractually bound to pay severance. Historically, the county pays those amounts out of its general fund.

The county began paying health insurance premiums for its employees about 25 years ago. The county reviews its current health insurance premium costs and requests bids to find more competitive prices each year, but premiums usually increase after a new plan is chosen.

"By contract, if we change health insurance, it has to be as good or better than the current insurance plan," Jackson said. "But we have no control if the health insurance provider increases its premiums."

Health insurance premiums unexpectedly increased by about $500,000 the past year, even after the county changed providers, he said.

Both board members said increasing the public safety sales tax is a fairer way of raising money than by increasing property taxes.

"No one wants to increase property taxes," Jackson said. "They're already high enough."

But, without an improvement in county finances, the public will be affected, he said.

"Just imagine that you may have to go to the treasurer's office to pay property taxes and stand in line for 15 to 20 minutes because they don't have enough help," Jackson said.

"But, the same would go for all offices, including the state's attorney's office and sheriff's office. If the sheriff's office doesn't have the personnel available, and you need help, it's going to take longer to get those services provided to you when you need them."

Williams said county board members have taken unfair criticism from people who think the board has somehow "approved a new tax."

But the county board doesn't have that authority, Williams added. Instead, it is up to the voters.

Jackson agreed. "We feel like we owe it to the voters to have a chance to say 'yes, we want to increase public safety' or 'we don't want to,'" Jackson said.