Officials questioned about Joplin tax proposal

Jul. 21—Representatives of Joplin city government, police officers, firefighters and a residents' group promoting Proposition Public Safety spoke and answered questions Wednesday night at a public meeting about the city's Aug. 2 ballot measure.

The meeting was held at Joplin Avenue Coffee Co., 506 Joplin Ave., and drew about 20 residents, most of whom asked questions or made comments about the proposal.

Passage of the question by a simple majority would result in an increase in property and personal property taxes of about 17%, said Mike Seibert, co-chairman of the Proposition Public Safety committee of residents.

Tax revenue from the proposal would be dedicated to new pay scales for police officers and firefighters designed to make the Joplin departments competitive both locally and with Springfield pay ranges, said police Chief Sloan Rowland.

The proposal could generate about $9 million, city officials have said. About $8.5 million of that would go to fund police and firefighter raises. They say the departments have experienced high turnover because other cities offer higher pay. Turnover has reduced the current ranks of the police department down by 21 to 30 officers below the department's authorized staffing of 110. In addition, a manpower study showed that another 22 officers are needed to cover the city's high calls for service.

One resident who did not give his name but said he is an accountant stated that with the current economy's inflation and high gas prices, it is not a good time to ask voters for a tax increase. Examples given by the city estimate tax bills would go up $285 for a house valued at $150,000 and $100 for $30,000 in personal property. The resident said that kind of an increase could force elderly people on restricted incomes from their homes.

City Manager Nick Edwards said the state of Missouri offers a property tax credit to senior citizens, disabled residents and disabled veterans who are below eligible income limits that would offset the city's increase.

The resident discounted the amount of such assistance.

Seibert said he would wait two years or so until the economy turns around to put the question on the ballot, "but police and firefighters can't wait that long. The urgency is there," with the fire department needing to hire a dozen firefighters and the constant turnover at the police department. "We're asking too few to do too much," he said of the workload demands on the departments.

Turnover in the fire department has meant that those reaching or who have reached retirement eligibility under the city's pension fund must stay on the job to help train a number of newer firefighters who have not been with the department because of past retirements and those who left to work in other cities, said Jeremie Humphreys, a fire captain who also is president of Joplin Professional Firefighters Local 59.

A resident said that public safety turnover and police officer turnover is a nationwide problem that may not be solved with money.

Rowland responded that it is a nationwide problem, "but it's going to be a lot more competitive in the future so we're going to have no chance if we don't stay competitive" in wages, benefits and training. "Right now we are not even competitive locally," he said. "That's a concern."

Another resident said people leave jobs for a lot of reasons and asked if departing officers say they are resigning because of the pay levels.

The police chief said "workload is a huge thing with being a quarter to a third down" in staffing at the department.

Resident Charlie McGrew asked if city officials have an alternative plan if the voters do not pass the tax proposal.

The city manager said he put forward what he thought was the best plan for bolstering the departments to the needed pay and benefit levels to retain and attract officers and firefighters.

"Plan B is probably a Band-Aid that doesn't go as far as we need to go," Edwards said.

McGrew responded that "we have put a lot of projects ahead of police and fire (in the past). Going forward, we need to make police and fire departments our top priority, not building a trail out somewhere or building a bridge."

A woman who identified herself as the mother of a police officer asked whether all of the money generated by the taxes, if passed, would go only to police and fire departments, and how any surplus revenue would be used.

The city manager said all of the money would go to fire and police uses. Whatever is left after wages are paid will be used to pay for equipment and supplies for the added police officers and firefighters and things like new firetrucks and police vehicles.

Additionally, the funding would be used to allow those public safety workers eligible for 20-year retirements to stay employed at their ranks and the new pay rates to keep those who have experience.

There are contracts with the police and fire unions that set out in writing the city's commitment to use the money as stated that would be authorized by the City Council if voters approve the tax measure. The new pay rates would go into effect with the city's next budget year that starts Nov. 1.