By Josh Mitchell
Missourian Staff Writer
While Franklin County voters defeated a 1.5 percent use tax by almost 20 percent, a county commissioner said there is still a good chance to get the tax passed in a future election.
First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the vote because it showed that many people understand the importance of a use tax.
The tax failed 59.7 percent to 40.3 percent, or 5,075 to 3,426.
But given the fact that there was not an organized campaign to promote the tax, it did fairly well at the polls, Brinker and Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer said.
Brinker actually suspected the vote margin to be greater.
Griesheimer said he wants to thank everyone who supported the use tax, but he said it was “doomed from the start.”
Officials have touted the use tax as a way to help local businesses.
Griesheimer has also said a use tax would provide another revenue source for the county as it struggles to provide services under a heavy debt load, which is currently about $50 million. Commissioners in office now inherited the debt from prior commissioners.
The revenue from the use tax would have been divided evenly between the county’s three sales tax funds of law enforcement, general fund and road/bridge.
Momentum behind the use tax declined significantly when Second District Commissioner Mike Schatz announced he had a serious illness early this year, Griesheimer said.
He said he does not want to consider putting the use tax back on the ballot until Schatz returns.
With a little more outreach and education on the tax, it could pass next time, Brinker said.
The tax may be put back on the ballot in the November election, Brinker added. Next time, there may be a committee established to go throughout the county and meet with groups to explain the tax, Brinker said.
There was no such committee this time.
The use tax would not have applied if out-of-state purchases were less than $2,000 a year. Also, if sales tax was charged where the item was bought out-of-state, use tax would not apply, Griesheimer has said.
Officials have touted the use tax as a way to help local businesses by taking away the incentive for people to shop out of state to avoid taxation. The use tax could apply to certain products bought out of state and brought back to Missouri, including some Internet purchases.
In the past, automobile dealerships have reportedly advertised that people should buy a car in Illinois to avoid sales tax. The local auto dealers need to come forward and support the use tax so there is a “united front,” Griesheimer added.
For the time being, sales taxes on out-of-state vehicle purchases are back in place temporarily. However, counties that have not previously approved a use tax must put to a vote of the people by November 2016 whether to repeal the sales tax on out-of-state vehicle purchases.
If Franklin County passes a use tax, it is unclear if the county will still have to put to a vote of the people whether to repeal the sales tax on out-of-state vehicle purchases, according to the Missouri Association of Counties.
It is unclear if the county needs to have the use tax in place already to avoid holding the vote to repeal the sales tax on out-of-state vehicle purchases.
The county may still have a window of opportunity to pass a use tax to avoid asking voters whether they want to repeal the sales tax on out-of-state vehicle purchases.
A new law is unclear on when counties must have the use tax in place to avoid holding the vote on the repeal, and the Missouri Department of Revenue has provided no clear direction on the matter, according to MAC Executive Director Dick Burke.
Griesheimer agreed that is a big “gray area” of the new law.
Meanwhile, Griesheimer said there is discussion of asking voters to approve a sales tax to support emergency communications infrastructure and personnel.
He noted that Sheriff Gary Toelke needs additional dispatchers for the communication center, and the county’s tower network needs to be upgraded to comply with the St. Louis Area Regional Response System, or STARRS.
There has been talk about the county charging area emergency providers — fire, ambulance and police — that use the county’s dispatch services. But if a tax was approved that would be done in lieu of any fee, Griesheimer said.
In addition, if an emergency communication tax was approved, the 911 landline tax would be repealed, Griesheimer added.
The landline tax has been bringing in less revenue as people switch to cellphones.
Moreover, Griesheimer said if the county decides to ask voters to approve a tax to support emergency communication services, then the use tax may not go on the ballot. He said he does not see how the county could ask voters to approve two taxes.