Joplin voters to decide property tax issue

July 30—A proposed property and personal tax increase that Joplin town officials pledged for public safety purposes will be decided by Joplin voters on Tuesday.

Voters will be asked to levy property and personal taxes in the amount of $1 per $100 of property assessment, with revenue to be earmarked for public safety needs for an increase of about $285 on a $160,000. The tax increase would be about 21%, said Mike Seibert, co-chair of the citizens’ group Proposition Public Safety, which provides information in community presentations and advocates for the proposal.

Joplin property owners in Jasper County currently pay about 41.99 cents per $100 of property assessment. Of this amount, 25.45 cents goes to the Joplin Public Library and 17.46 cents goes to the city and is dedicated to parks, health department and recycling services. Newton County residents pay 41.19 cents per $100 of property assessment, with 17.46 cents going to the city and the remainder supporting the Newton County Library.

The ballot proposal, called the Public Safety Proposal, will need a simple majority to pass.

City officials projected the taxes would generate about $9 million a year. City officials said they need $8.5 million to increase pay scales for police and firefighters, hire and equip additional public safety officers, and build an eighth fire station.

As part of this effort, the city would include funds in the new compensation plan to allow retired police and fire department retirees or those soon to be eligible for a 20-year retirement to retire and stay to work at the new rates of pay. Currently, retirees or those eligible for retirement receive a 20% pay cut if they wish to stay or return to their jobs.

Police Chief Sloan Rowland said 163 officers have left the department over the past 10 years. With 110 positions approved, the department had 78 in service as of July due to vacancies and some officers on military leave, sick leave and other reasons. He imposed mandatory overtime of 20 hours a week and moved officers from investigations and other divisions to put them on patrol to respond to calls.

“We work our people to the point that they break,” Rowland said Wednesday at a town hall meeting.

Deputy Fire Chief Andy Nimmo said his department “has a big hiring problem”. He said neighboring towns have passed taxes for fire departments or fire districts and are able to pay as much or more than Joplin, sometimes recruiting hires from Joplin before completing fire academy.

“We see this is going to be an ongoing problem,” he said.

Nine years ago, Joplin’s call for firefighter testing would attract around 100 applicants. Now there may only be one out of a handful, he said.

“This proposal will put us in a position to be the fire department where everyone wants to work” if the proposal passes due to the new pay scale.

City Manager Nick Edwards said property tax rather than sales tax is the better option for addressing public safety hiring and retention because it provides a more reliable source of revenue. Sales taxes have been stable for several years and don’t have automatic increases like real estate, which is reassessed every two years, he said.

However, residents at a public meeting Wednesday night disputed the notion that sales taxes have not increased. At a meeting at the Old Town Hall in Silver Creek Village, a resident said town figures showed a cumulative 6% increase in sales taxes over the past few years.

Several people who attended that meeting, as well as others who attended a public meeting on July 21, told city officials that although they support police and firefighters and believe they should get higher wages, they do not favor property taxes as a source.

At both meetings, comments were made that real estate and personal property taxes could be a burden on residents and seniors on fixed or low incomes.

At the July 27 meeting, resident Rita Ball said she was 69 but could not retire because her income would be too limited.

She and others at both meetings said they believe a sales tax is fairer than a property tax because many people who do not own property also rely on public safety services.

“It really pisses me off that you have the nerve to ask us to pay for this,” Ball said. “I don’t think that’s fair, it only comes from people who own property.”

Seibert provided information about a state tax credit that people age 65 and older or people with disabilities can get to pay their tax bills. A form can be filed alone or with a tax return to request a payment from the state.

Another Joplin resident, Jim Stratton, wrote in a letter to The Globe that while he supports police and firefighters and thinks they should get a pay raise, he wonders why the city hasn’t offered a sales tax rather than a property tax.

Stratton wrote that “the one dollar per $100 on their property’s property assessment could be an eye opener” for residents. He suggested that people could check the impact of the proposed tax increase by looking at last year’s property tax increase, dropping the last two digits of the property’s assessment, and the figure remaining would indicate the tax increase to within a few cents.

Residents also told city officials in meetings that they believed there had been poor management or spending decisions and that the city was not effective in cutting spending.

In a recent presentation at a city council meeting, city staff said the city has controlled spending over the past few years by eliminating jobs, freezing wages and cutting spending as revenues from the general fund grew from nearly $35 million in 2012 to about $29.5 million in 2014. It remained at revenues of about $30.2 million last year.

Because local taxes are the financial backbone of Missouri cities, many have both property and sales taxes, city officials said. They say that because sales taxes can suffer in an economic downturn, property taxes are a more reliable source of revenue than sales taxes alone.

Penny D. Jackson