ANALYSIS: Missouri counties assigned same work for less pay

Sunday, May 2, 2010 | 4:51 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY— State officials are planning on help from Missouri's counties to balance a $23.3 billion budget next year — whether the counties like it or not.

Faced with falling state revenue and requirements to cut state spending, lawmakers turned to money that goes to counties for providing state services. Local governments will have the same duties assigned to them but will receive less money for it.

Counties essentially face an underfunded mandate to house inmates, value property and prevent kids from buying alcohol and cigarettes. By pushing more of the costs for those types of services to counties, state lawmakers relieved some of their own budget pressure, but it amplified the problems besetting local officials.

"There is nowhere to go except back to taxpayers to ask for tax increases, and no one wants to do that, especially now," said Dick Burke, the executive director for the Missouri Association of Counties. "So when the state doesn't fund an idea, that county either has to come up with the money or something is not going to be funded. They are extremely frustrated that this has been put on their back."

Lawmakers last week approved a 2011 operating budget that makes cuts throughout state government. It trims higher education, mental health, tourism and keeps K-12 school spending flat — even though a state formula for basic aid to schools called for a more than $100 million increase.

In all, lawmakers cut $484 million from the initial budget proposed by Gov. Jay Nixon, whose budget director has warned that even more spending reductions might be necessary. The budget takes effect July 1.

For counties, the budget calls for a cut to the reimbursement rate for housing state prisoners in local facilities to $19.58 per day for each inmate from $22. State money to pay county assessors for evaluating property would be about $4 per parcel. That is what assessors currently get because of midyear budget cuts by Nixon, but is about $2 less per property than what lawmakers had budgeted.

Counties need the reimbursements for both prisoner lodging and assessments. Most county money goes into either law enforcement or jails, and the taxes collected using the property assessments are the primary source of revenue for many counties.

The state budget also would give county sheriffs and local police more responsibilities for enforcing state alcohol and tobacco laws. That's because the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control would focus more on licensing issues and less on law enforcement. A bill currently in the House would move the entity from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Revenue.

Budget officials hope the state will save $5 million by trimming counties' reimbursement for incarceration and $5.5 million by giving assessors less money.

House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, said Missouri's financial situation is serious and savings needed to be found from all areas to balance the budget.

"I do not disagree that the counties are receiving less revenue for the services they provide," said Icet, R-Wildwood.

Yet Icet, who has criticized the federal government over unfunded mandates this year, said state officials are at least giving counties a little help.

Federal officials "tend to fund something on a short term basis and then back out, and then the states are on the hook, whereas the state still has continued to pay some level," he said.

Even with the partial reimbursements from the state, counties are left in a bind to cover the bills because they cannot make midyear budget cuts. Large counties will likely be hurt more by the prisoner reimbursement drop because of the size of their jail population.

"These are the choices the legislators had to make, and it's the choices the counties have to live with," Burke said. "The buck stops with (the counties) and they are going to have to deal with it."

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