Government openness and possible changes to the state’s open meetings law were discussed during a forum of local officials last week.
The Washington Area Chamber of Commerce Local Government Forum also included discussion of many other topics including widening Highway 47 and a possible use tax that may be put up to a public vote next year.
Officials from the city of Washington and Franklin County took part in a panel discussion and fielded questions from the audience at the Best Western Event Center.
Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer said the county is working with the Missouri Press Association on possible modifications to the state open meetings law.
He noted that the county opposed changes to the Sunshine Law last year.
Griesheimer said he hopes to reach an agreement with the press association over open meetings that will not make it difficult for the commissioners to do their day-to-day jobs.
For instance, he said it is unreasonable for the commissioners to be required to meet public notice requirement every time there are two or more of them together to discuss routine county business.
“We are going to try and work with the Missouri Press Association and try to work a compromise out where we’re not in violation of the law every time we sit down and try to work out issues,” Griesheimer said.
First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said the way the law is currently written precludes more than one commissioner from meeting with a constituent without first posting public notice of that in advance.
“It’s really kind of a ridiculous aspect to try and make it into a reality,” Brinker said.
He added that the commissioners are working with the press association to make the law more “lenient” in that area. This would make it easier for the commissioners to have conversations about subjects, but there would be no final decisions made, he said.
The ongoing effort to widen Highway 47 between Washington and St. Clair also was a big topic of discussion for the forum.
Griesheimer said area governments have contributed $180,000 to study the corridor. He said the study would actually cost more than that and he hopes the extra money can be secured through the Missouri Department of Transportation and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
He noted that the Highway 47 Corridor Committee will soon meet with MoDOT and East-West Gateway to discuss the need for the widening project and possibly take them on a driving tour of the corridor.
The problem is that even if the study is done, there will still not be any money in place for the actual construction, said Griesheimer, who serves on the East-West Gateway Board of Directors.
Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy agreed that there is a need to widen Highway 47, noting that there is heavy congestion. Many people who work in Washington use the highway for commutes, she said.
One audience member asked why government officials would spend money on a study if money to construct the road is not in place.
Washington City Administrator Jim Briggs explained that an environmental assessment must be conducted in order to get federal funding for the project. The study will likely cost more than $1 million, and the $180,000 the local entities have committed is “seed money,” Briggs said.
Briggs noted that a 1-cent transportation sales tax may go to a vote of the people to help pay for road projects around the state. Local officials are hoping that if the tax passes, that some of the revenue can go to the Highway 47 project.
The goal is to get all of the preliminary studies of the Highway 47 project done now so it will be ready for construction if the tax passes.
The officials were also asked about the upcoming legislative session that starts in January and whether there are any bills they are watching.
Griesheimer said there will be a push to increase the amount of money that counties are reimbursed for housing state prisoners.
“We are down to, I think, $19.58 per day for housing state prisoners,” Griesheimer said.
He also said there will be an effort to increase the amount of money the county gets from the state for assessing property.
“That has been whittled down from $6 per parcel to $3,” he said.
The county is also going to ask voters to approve a use tax in the April election.
“We just hope voters will see the need and pass it,” Griesheimer said.
This tax would apply to items of $2,000 or more that were purchased out of state and not taxed where they were sold and then brought back to Franklin County.
The city of Washington already has a use tax. The state also has a use tax, and Warren County recently passed one, too.
Brinker said the use tax would create a new revenue stream, which he said is needed because the county’s debt load is “enormous.”
“That is really putting a pinch” on the county, Brinker added.
It is hard to say how much revenue it would generate annually, but it could be $750,000 to $1 million a year, Griesheimer said.
Many people will not even notice it, Griesheimer said, adding that businesses that buy goods out of state may pay it.
He added that having a county use tax levels the playing field for local businesses by eliminating the incentive for people to shop out of state.
Brinker was asked to share his thoughts on the future of tourism in Franklin County.
Tourism is a “good seed” that can help draw visitors to invest in the area, Brinker said, adding that he sees tourism increasing locally.
The question was apparently in response to comments Brinker made earlier in the year when he questioned whether the county should be putting money into tourism.
This created a backlash from Washington Chamber Commerce Tourism Director Mary Beth Rettke, which said tourism generates much economic stimulus for the area.
Brinker later said that the county’s tourism investment was not that large anyway and that ideally he would like the county to one day have an economic development/tourism director.
The county budgeted $32,934 in an economic development/ tourism fund this year. Part of that money was intended to cover magazine advertising for which the county is reimbursed for from other entities that benefit.
Lucy said Washington continues to study an annexation plan and hopes to take it to a vote of the people next year.
“We have scaled back the plan,” Lucy said.
There have also been helpful discussions with property owners, Lucy said.