ROCHESTER, N.Y. —
Carmen Wilkerson ran for mayor of St. George with one clear goal in mind for the tiny Missouri town: Get rid of it.
Like many of St. George’s 1,200 residents, the paralegal had dreaded the thought of having to pay more taxes for a backlog of road fixes. So she campaigned for mayor in the spring of 2011 with a slogan — “Save Us From Our City” — touting disincorporation. She won, and the following November residents voted by a nearly 3-to-1 margin to dissolve the town.
“Ultimately, it was the money,” said Wilkerson. “We had the choice of raising our taxes by $300 per year per household for five years just to replace our streets, or dissolve and have the county do it for a very a small tax increase,” she added.
In 2008, St. George — known as a local speed trap — had spent $200,000 more than it took into its coffers, according to county records. That was counting the traffic tickets the small police department was overzealous in issuing.
In its budget woes, St. George is far from alone.
Amid a tough economy, a growing number of small municipalities have had to consider that most extreme of measures — dissolution — to cut costs for local residents. Ten states had fewer townships because of mergers and consolidations, which include dissolutions, between 2007 and 2012, the Census Bureau found in its preliminary 2012 Census of Governments, a count undertaken every five years.
Kansas had the most pronounced decline in recent years, the census found, from 1,353 in 2007 to 1,268 in 2012 — a loss of 85 municipalities.
“What is driving a decision is different in every community, but in almost all the cases at this time, it’s the economy,” said Vicki Brown, one of the researchers at Rochester, N.Y.-based Center for Governmental Research, a consulting firm working with several communities in the country’s northeast corner considering dissolution.
“They’re all facing fiscal pressures,” Brown said.
A study by an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school found the past 15 years saw more than half of the dissolutions ever recorded and since 2000, nearly as many municipal governments dissolved as were formed.
“Fiscal strain on local governments has definitely been amplified by the foreclosure crisis that began in 2006, but local fiscal crisis has longer, deeper roots in falling local aid from federal and state governments since the 1980s, anti-tax measures passed in most states since the late 1970s,” said Michelle Wilde Anderson, who published a study on towns dissolving in March.
Lack of growth in small communities with the rising cost of services and a shrinking tax base are some of the common issues found among municipalities considering dissolution. Many other towns in trouble also appeared when a certain industry was booming and if that goes away, so does the town’s revenues, experts added.
From Tennessee to Indiana and Utah, in the last 10 years, nearly 200 small cities have considered dissolution in 39 states, Anderson found.
The community of Lakewood, Tenn. — numbering more than 2,300 — voted to dissolve in 2010. The borough of Princeton, N.J., merged with another township to save money in 2011. The list goes on.
“Voters or local politicians have decided that they can no longer sustain the costs of a separate local government for their territory,” Anderson said.
St. George is not the only town in the 90 municipalities that reside in St. Louis County to be in trouble, but it’s the only one that so far has dissolved.
“We do have a number of smaller communities that are struggling because of the economy,” Lori J. Fiegel, a county planning manager. “Distribution of tax dollars is based on sales taxes. Per capital distribution of sales taxes has been declining.”
The epicenter of dissolutions recently, however, has been in the country’s northeast corner.
Eight villages have dissolved in New York between 2008 and 2012. In that same time, 25 villages have considered dissolution, according to the Center for Governmental Research, the consulting firm.
At more than 6,000 people, the village of Seneca Falls became the largest village to dissolve in New York. It merged with the town of Seneca Falls, which meant part-time government positions were eliminated. A full-time village administrator was also let go. But both police departments were merged.
The Town of Seneca Falls now numbers at about 10,000. Like St. George, taxes spelled trouble for the village. Many village residents did not want to have a tax raise for maintenance work.
They were paying $16 per $1,000. After merging with the town, those taxes were lowered to just over $5 per thousand, said Seneca Falls Mayor Don Earle.
“All of the history is the same. Everything is the same,” Earle said. “Water, sewer, garbage were serviced without any stoppage.”
The spike in dissolutions comes in part as an organized effort by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, which is trying to consolidate a sprawling web of municipalities in the state as a way to lessen the tax burden on residents, among other reasons.
While dissolving towns can save locals on taxes, it also mean dismantling local governments, cutting jobs and outsourcing services such as the police department. It also means a municipality’s revenues, assets, contracts, and debts must be reorganized.
There are several states that don’t allow dissolutions, Anderson said, but she still expects that more towns will dissolve.
When Wilkerson took office in 2011 and immediately disposed of the city clerk and city attorney, who had been on St. George’s payroll for three decades, she said. A few years earlier the police department, which was made up of four full-timers and a dozen part-timers, had been disbanded. The department had gotten in trouble for less than professional behavior and writing too many traffic tickets.
“There was no reason for us to be a municipality,” Wilkerson said of St. George, which hosted only two businesses. “It was there to pay salaries, city attorney, city clerk, road commissioners.”
So far the transition into St. Louis County has gone smoothly for St. George. Eventually, the county will have to appropriate more than $1 million to fix the roads, but that will be done later on, Fiegel said.
But not everyone is left happy when a town dissolves.
“We have no law enforcement. We have a community watch. We have to wait a half hour for deputies to come from the county,” said Johnny Miller, whose town of Shamrock, Okla. — population about 100 — dissolved in 2010.
Municipalities in trouble have other options as well such as filing for bankruptcy or asking state governments for a bailout.
Earlier this summer, officials of the town of Gold Bar in Washington state floated around the idea of dissolution and the response from the community was swift. The town had been solvent until a slew of public records lawsuits sent the legal bills soaring.
“They didn’t arrive with pitchforks and torches but a bunch showed up saying ‘we don’t want to be unincorporated’,” said Mayor Joe Beavers.
Gold Bar’s hopes now hinge on voters approving a new levy in November. Otherwise, Beavers said, bankruptcy is too expensive.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. —
Carmen Wilkerson ran for mayor of St. George with one clear goal in mind for the tiny Missouri town: Get rid of it.
- Local News
Last remaining Ku-Ku
While other fast food locations along Miami’s portion of Route 66 tend to slow down in the mid-afternoon, Eugene Waylan is still hard at work behind his grill serving up hamburgers to a packed drive through.
Event for veterans on tap at Crowder
For area veterans who have returned home from more than a decade at war, the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks hopes to send a simple message at an event this weekend: Welcome home.
Amendment 7 backers tout safety, new jobs; foes say special interests to benefit
Billions of dollars are on the line when Missouri voters head to the polls on Tuesday to consider Amendment 7.
The constitutional amendment, sent to the voters by the Legislature this year, would temporarily increase Missouri’s sales tax by three-quarters of 1 percent, raising an estimated $5.4 billion for the next decade to fund transportation projects. That includes more than $114.1 million in state funds for projects in Newton and Jasper counties, on top of additional revenue for localities that would be raised.
After the Missouri Department of Transportation downsized in recent years, these projects are now mostly designed and built by private engineers, contractors and laborers — many of whom have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a campaign effort to sway voters to support the measure.
Last Monday — eight days ahead of the primary election day — supporters of the measure reported having raised more than $4.1 million for a campaign committee called Missourians For Safe Transportation and New Jobs, which was established last fall to support the measure.
The International Union of Operating Engineers in St. Louis and Kansas City have contributed nearly $250,000 to the effort. That total was dwarfed by the $649,398 put in by the Industry Advancement Fund Heavy Constructors. Between its Missouri and Kansas companies, APAC — a construction contracting company that specializes in transportation projects — has contributed more than $150,000.
“The whole idea that money is flowing into the campaign, of course it is,” said Sen. John Lamping, a St. Louis Republican who is opposed to the measure. “It would be a smart business decision to do that.”
Lamping said the money pouring into the campaign supporting Amendment 7 is indicative of the financial gain the measure bodes for contractors and laborers.
Lamping proposed a measure in the Legislature that would redirect one-eighth of existing sales and use tax revenue directly to transportation projects, but he said that measure was rejected by legislative leaders. The coalition “didn’t hear about it,” the outgoing senator said, “because it was my idea instead of someone else’s idea.”
Lamping, who filibustered a similar measure in 2013, said Republicans have an ideological consistency problem on the issue. He pointed to the Legislature passing a sales tax increase only a few weeks after overriding Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of an income tax cut that will largely help businesses organized as limited liability corporations, like many of the companies that could benefit from the measure. Lamping said that the tax increase will mostly affect taxpayers who did not get a significant tax cut.
“Who wants a tax cut in Missouri?” he said. “Businesses. (Republican leaders) wanted to make them happy and then they passed a tax cut. This is grand-scale special interest cronyism.”
The ad campaign being funded mostly by the business interests features paramedics and construction workers claiming the measure would “fix our roads and keep Missouri families safe.”
“We have a chance to give our highways and bridges the repairs they need,” says one ad, which is running in Joplin and statewide in the lead up to Tuesday’s vote. “We have a chance to fix what’s broken by voting yes on Amendment 7.”
The commercial uses a lot of words to talk about the benefits of the measure, but two words in particular are noticeably absent from the commercial: “Tax increase.”
“The ads don’t mention any of the ballot language,” said Jewell Patek, a spokesman for Missourians For Safe Transportation and New Jobs. “We figure Missourians will see the language when they go to the polls.”
Patek, a former state representative who now lobbies the Legislature, said he disagreed with Lamping’s notion that Amendment 7 is all about special interest gain.
“There’s quite a bit to gain for Missourians,” he said. “We have serious road needs. We’ll win or lose by the benefits in Amendment 7. I’m not sure I agree with Senator Lamping’s assessment.”
If approved, Amendment 7 would prevent an increase in the state’s fuel tax, a funding boost opponents of the amendment like Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and some of the state’s social welfare groups have said would be more appropriate because it could pull in revenue from people who use the roads — like the state’s trucking industry.
The Missouri Truckers Association’s political action committee has contributed more than $27,000 to the effort to pass the measure. Tom Crawford, president of the association, said his members support the amendment because they see the problems on the road and deal with them every day. And passage of the measure does not mean anyone will stop paying fuel tax.
“We overpay our fair share on the fuel tax,” he said, pointing to statistics by the American Transportation Research Institute that show truckers have accounted for about 14 percent of road usage while paying for 39 percent of all taxes and fees owed by motorists. “We pay sales taxes just like everybody does on goods and products that people buy in the stores.”
Crawford said truck companies do not pay state sales taxes on the purchase of trucks, but they do pay a federal tax. “So, we won’t be impacted on new equipment purchase, but other areas of our business will be impacted just like every other taxpayer in the state will,” he said.
Thomas Shrout, who is helping lead the campaign against the tax hike, said that is not good enough and that Amendment 7 lets truck drivers off the hook. “Under Amendment 7, they wouldn’t have to pay any more,” he said.
Shrout’s opposition campaign has raised just over $27,000 — less than 1 percent of the total money raised by its supporters. They are targeting their opposition at the state’s urban core by spending money on direct mail and targeted robocalls in the final week.
“We think using the sales tax to fund road projects is poor policy for the state of Missouri,” he said. “It should be rejected.”
Shrout said the Missouri Department of Transportation and its supporters should go back to the drawing board and consider some of the other options like campaigning for toll roads or a gas tax increase — both based on road usage.
Representatives for APAC and the Heavy Constructors Association declined requests for comment.
Amendment 7 is one of five measures voters will consider when they head to the polls on Tuesday. Statewide, local election officials reported to the Missouri secretary of state that it was their estimate that about 27 percent of the state’s 4.06 million registered voters will show up to vote, including 25 percent of registered voters in Jasper County and 30 percent in Newton County.
Brownback names 3 Kansas Board of Regents members
Gov. Sam Brownback on Friday named a former veteran Kansas House member and two attorneys to the board overseeing the state’s higher education system.
Fair to feature goats, chickens and decorated bras
Along with the usual fair sights, sounds and smells — livestock, poultry, produce and the like — there will be something a bit unusual at the Cherokee County American Legion Free Fair this year: Decorated brassieres. And pink. Lots of pink.
Grant to fund solar energy system for PSU’s Plaster Center
An $80,000 grant from Westar Energy will fund solar panels to provide both energy and education at the Robert W. Plaster Center, now under construction at Pittsburg State University.
Survey seeks views on Joplin’s future goals
Residents are being asked to fill out a survey on priorities for Joplin’s future. The effort was inspired by a meeting of community leaders last month. Survey forms are available at the Joplin Public Library and online at www.surveymonkey.com/s/jointjoplinareaplanningsurvey.
Habitat slates volunteer work days
In the wake of the 2011 tornado, Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity has been a partner with organizations and individuals in the construction of 86 new houses. But what’s also needed, Executive Director Scott Clayton said, are repairs to area homes.
Jasper County voters to decide three offices
Two incumbents are facing challengers and three candidates are vying for what will be an open county office in primary balloting Tuesday in Jasper County.
City Council member criticizes master developer in TV interview
A member of the Joplin City Council told an Amarillo, Texas, newscaster that Joplin’s contracted master developer has “overpromised and underdelivered.” Councilman Benjamin Rosenberg’s comments were included in a two-part report that aired this week on Amarillo television station KVII-TV.
- More Local News Headlines
- Last remaining Ku-Ku