Bleak year turns bright: strong sales tax prompts county officials’ optimism of achieving budget goal

By Buck Collier, Special Correspondent
Posted 11/18/20

HERMANN — A surprisingly strong November sales tax check has Gasconade County government officials thinking what earlier this year was unthinkable — reaching the projected General Fund …

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Bleak year turns bright: strong sales tax prompts county officials’ optimism of achieving budget goal

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HERMANN — A surprisingly strong November sales tax check has Gasconade County government officials thinking what earlier this year was unthinkable — reaching the projected General Fund sales tax revenue of more than $1 million in 2020.

This month’s sales tax reimbursement check from the state — representing revenue generated from sales made in October — is for $93,068, almost $30,000 more than the amount received in November of last year.

“To me, that was amazing,” said County Treasurer Mike Feagan in delivering the monthly sales tax report during Thursday’s County Commission session.

Indeed, the latest sales tax check puts Gasconade County in position to meet the budgeted General Fund sales tax revenue for this year of $1,016,000 — the largest amount ever received by the county. County Clerk Lesa Lietzow said the county needs a December sales tax check of about $82,000 to meet the budgeted amount — a level considered unattainable by county officials at the outset of a year plagued by business shutdowns because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Based on previous years’ December sales tax checks, the $1.016-million figure should be met. In the last five years, the smallest December reimbursement was $86,043, which was received in November 2017.

Through November, Gasconade County has received $933,897 in sales tax for the General Fund. The General Fund finances the bulk of county government operations — salaries and benefits, equipment, law enforcement and other expenses.

The county’s Road Department receives a similar amount of sales tax revenue each month.

This month’s sales tax check pushes the year-to-day amount $41,205 ahead of the amount received in 2019 through November.

The possibility of meeting the projected amount is welcomed news for county government administrators who crafted a 2020 operating budget with a beginning balance of only $20,000. “General Fund started the year the lowest ever did,” said Lietzow, the county’s chief budget officer.

Lietzow’s comment came during a meeting of the Commission and some current and incoming officeholders to talk about the upcoming 2021 budget process. Next year’s budget effort, now in its initial stage, should be much less frustrating, the county clerk said. “It doesn’t look like we’re going to start out too badly,” she said.

“I can’t believe I’m saying that,” she added.

To make the 2020 budget numbers work, which local governments are required by state law to do — at least on paper— officials pumped up the revenue side, particularly regarding sales tax revenue. After breaking the million-dollar mark in 2018 ($1,006,640), total sales tax revenue fell back to $990,969 in 2019. Believing the $1.016-million estimate to be unrealistic, county administrators were hoping the various officeholders would be able to hold down expenses to keep the budget balanced by year’s end.

Thanks to a stronger-than-anticipated sales tax showing — due in large part to increased sales throughout the pandemic at Walmart in Owensville and strong grocery store sales — that goal likely will be achieved, based on the financial numbers.

“Compliments to the elected officials,” said Southern District Associate Commissioner Jerry Lairmore, R-Owensville.

In addition to Lietzow, Feagan and Lairmore, the other current and incoming officials at the budget preview session included Presiding Commissioner Larry Miskel, R-Hermann, Northern District Associate Commissioner Jim Holland, R-Hermann, Sheriff-elect Scott Eiler, Coroner-elect Jeff Arnold, retiring Public Administrator Faye Owsley and Public Administrator-elect Kelly Brehe-Thomas.

Fewer elections in 2021

Regarding operations during 2021, the county will realize significant savings in some areas, such as elections, but will see some increase in expenses in other areas, such as a salary increase approved last year for officials beginning a term in January.

Lietzow noted that only one election — the April General Municipal Election — is scheduled for 2021, unlike the four elections held this year. The April election is paid for by the various governmental agencies that are on the ballot. This year, Lietzow explained, Gasconade County, along with all other counties, fell victim to state government’s whim of cutting back on the amount it paid counties for the March Presidential Primary Election. In previous years, the state paid essentially all of the costs of a presidential primary. This year, state lawmakers decided to provide only a portion of the cost. Lietzow said county taxpayers provided $7,000 toward the presidential primary to go along with a flat fee provided by the state.

“They did that to every county,” the clerk said. “We have had presidential primaries for 20 years or more and they have always covered that cost. This year they didn’t.”

As for the two major countywide elections, the August Primary Election and the November General Election, county government paid about $60,000 — money that won’t  have to be spent next year.

On the expense side, taxpayers will be seeing about $14,000 added to the salaries-and-benefits line of the budget ledger, thanks to a pay raise approved in November 2019 by the county’s Salary Commission. The Salary Commission is comprised of all elected officials and meets in odd-numbered years to consider increasing the pay of officeholders. Any pay change affects only the officers beginning a new term after the next election, which affects about half the county officeholders. Officials in the middle of their term must win re-election and begin new term to receive a pay boost.

Gasconade County had been paying officeholders about 85 to 90 percent of the amount allowed by state law. The Salary Commission was split in its vote to allow pay increases of 100-percent of the amount proscribed for the various offices by the state legislature — if county funds allow the increase.

With a more promising sales tax revenue outlook as the year ends, Lietzow said it appears the additional $14,000 needed for the pay increases can be accommodated without problem.

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