Commissioners spar over tax issues during latest open meeting

The annual ritual of setting the Platte County property tax levy became a political spectacle at the Platte County Commission meeting Monday, Sept. 19.

After a presentation from county attorney Bob Shaw, Platte County first district commissioner Beverlee Roper moved to slash the county’s general property tax levy from 6 cents per $100 assessed valuation back to 1 cent. Shaw explained Platte County’s unique situation, which required the commission to re-establish its tax levy ceiling two years ago due to a clerical error.

In the Aug. 2 Republican primary, Roper lost her bid for re-election to political newcomer Dagmar Wood, whose campaign was critical of Roper’s voting history.

In 2014, Roper and second district commissioner Duane Soper, who did not seek re-election this year, voted to increase the levy from 1 to 6 cents to reverse a funding gap for the federally-mandated emergency radio update and address the past error made in paperwork.

“I think we need to move it back (to 1 cent),” Roper said. “I voted to raise it to 6 cents, but (Wood) put out lots of stuff about how I raised taxes 500 percent.”

Roper then turned to presiding commissioner Ron Schieber and said she knew he agreed because he donated $500 to Wood’s campaign. Schieber asked Roper if her intent was to place the burden of planning how to pay for the radio update on the next commission. 

“Absolutely. They’ve earned it,” Roper said. 

Platte County auditor Kevin Robinson said while the county does have money in the bank for the 2017 radio update payment, cutting the levy to one cent would reduce the county’s annual budget by about $1.1 million. 

“I’ve said from the beginning that the commission has kicked the can down the road,” Schieber said. “So you’re proposing we basically take $1.1 million out of the budget with no plan?”

Roper said she knows Schieber wants to reduce the property tax. He agreed, saying he wants to reduce the tax to zero, but added that he wants to do so with a plan in place to pay for essential county services. 

Soper said he believed the 6-cent levy needed to remain in place, as insurance increases of close to one-half million are on the horizon and the radio payments still needed to be made.

Additionally, money needed to be set aside to develop the “futures” area of the jail to accommodate growth.

“I’m not going to be the commissioner that’s going to walk out of here and just do what’s been done before,” Soper said. 

“I would agree with that, but this was vicious,” Roper said. “I don’t mean to be petty, but it was very vicious. You and I tried to do the right thing, and we brought the county back.”

Soper agreed, and noted that he and Roper did take the heat for raising taxes. Two years ago, then-presiding commissioner Jason Brown voted against the tax increase.

The discussion then turned to the county’s one-half cent sales tax for parks and recreation and stormwater management.

Schieber said he’d tried to discuss realigning the sales tax to reallocate a portion of it to law enforcement when he was first elected to office. Roper argued that the sales tax could not be changed because the approximately $10 million in bonds for the additions to the two county community centers are tied to the tax. 

“We had the discussion over and over again about making sure that law enforcement is the priority over amenities,” Schieber said. “Yet each time an amenity comes up, I sit and I cringe knowing that we could do better in this county if county government was focused on law enforcement, roads and bridges.”

Schieber accused Roper of making the motion for political purposes.

“I am not doing it for political purposes,” Roper said. “What I am doing is following the will of the voter. The campaign was run against me on a 500 percent increase I voted for.” 

Roper said voters had also developed a master plan for parks twice and twice voted to approve a sales tax for parks. Once the bonds were paid off and campaign promises met, the parks tax could be realigned if voters approved it. 

Schieber argued that more money could have been set aside for those debt payments, and that he had suggested as much to former parks director Brian Nowotny.

Before the call to vote, which failed 2-1 with only Roper voting to reduce the levy, Roper reiterated she had not made the suggestion for political purposes because she had no future in politics.

After a short recess, the levy was set at 6 cents with Roper voting no. 

Levies for the county road and bridge district and drainage district were also approved with the road and bridge levy remaining at 32 cents and the drainage ditch assessed valuation decreasing slightly by a fraction of a cent from last year. The drainage ditch levy remains at 7 cents.

Five cents of the 6-cent general fund levy are dedicated to pay off the county’s lease agreement on the narrow-band police radio system. The payments will continue for the next five years on the current lease agreement.

The commission is also working to recoup its proper levy ceiling. In 2014, the county was forced to reset its levy ceiling at the level approved by voters in 1980 — at 35 cents per $100 assessed valuation — due to an error discovered in the Missouri State Auditor’s Office.

After an investigation, it was discovered due to clerical errors the property tax levy ceiling was lowered from approximately 19 cents in 2012 to 1 cent in 2013, a figure matching the actual assessed levy set by the commission for 2013. The levy paperwork was submitted incorrectly in 2011, 2012 and 2013 with the error only discovered by the state in 2013.

Tax levy calculations are complex and generally mandated by state and local statutes and guidelines, but due to the miscalculations made in 2011-13, Platte County had to recoup 52 cents worth of taxation lost.

Last year, Shaw said during discussions with the Missouri State Auditor’s Office, the county was told to recoup those reductions within the next four to six years. Platte County is expected to take at least 10 cents off the recoupment amount each year, Shaw said.

At the Sept. 19 meeting, Roper and Soper were also critical of Schieber’s assertion he wanted to eventually reduce the levy to zero. A voluntary reduction of the levy to zero would force the county to bring any future increases to a public vote.

“Good luck getting the voters to give that back when you need it,” Roper said.