There was a time, back in the 1960s and 1970s, that Franklin County government was just barely getting by financially. Pay for county employees was meager, not much in capital improvements, such as roads and bridges, could be done, operations were limited, such as in law enforcement, because the county could only do what was authorized by the Missouri Legislature for a second-class county and counties across the state really didn’t have a voice in Jefferson City.

The cities had the Missouri Municipal League which had some force as a lobbying body. The cities were able to convince lawmakers that they needed authority to levy sales taxes for certain purposes with voter approval. That authority moved cities forward. The counties with forward-thinking leaders, such as Ralph Smith in Franklin County, created the Missouri Association of Counties (MAC). One of the first things the association did was to lobby for authorization to levy sales taxes with voter approval. Lawmakers were convinced of the need, recognizing that some counties were near bankruptcy. No longer could counties exist on property taxes. The authority was granted. Counties moved into a new era even though the counties had to roll back property taxes, something the cities were not required to do. When Franklin County became a first-class county, it had additional authority in several areas.

Franklin County was among the first counties to enact a general revenue sales tax of a half-cent, the maximum allowed for a single purpose. Collections began in 1983. The first full year of the tax produced $1,338,288. This past year, 2012, the general revenue sales tax collections totaled $5,169,652. That was not a record year, but near it. The record was set in 2007 when the total was $5,369,844. Then came the recession and the collections, reflecting spending, dropped below $5 million in 2009 and 2010. The last two years have been over $5 million. The total collected for general revenue since 1983 is $112.2 million.

Historically, the county has always faced serious road and bridge problems. To solve the problem, the county asked voters for a half-cent sales tax for roads and bridges. Voters agreed. Collections began in 1989. The total collected since then has reached $100.5 million. Think of what shape the county’s more than 800 miles of roads would be in today without that tax. Also, serious bridge problems have been overcome with this tax money. The county’s cost-sharing on bridge projects with the state and federal government allocations have resulted in many new bridges and improvements to others. Safety concerns were addressed.

With a steady population increase, there has been more crime. The sheriff’s department needed financial support and voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax for law enforcement, with collections beginning in 1996. Under that tax obligation, collections have totaled $39.4 million since 1996. Then another quarter-cent sales tax for law enforcement was passed by voters, with collections beginning in 2007. Under that tax, a total of $13 million and some change has been realized since 2007.

In all, the sales taxes have put more than $265 million in the county’s coffers, going back to the first collections in 1983. Along the way, the county also built a new jail and sheriff’s department facility with a special tax with a sunset provision. It also built a badly needed new administration building and new judicial center, and remodeled the old courthouse with money saved and by using bond financing.

Without authority to levy sales taxes, well, Franklin County, and many other counties, financially would have been doomed. Overall, county officials have been good stewards of taxpayers’ money. One blemish on the record is the “pave every road in Franklin County” program that had poor oversight and the “redo” work has been estimated at $1 million or more.

With rising costs of governmental operations, we can’t help but wonder if counties will have to go to the General Assembly again and seek authority to levy more than a half-cent sales tax for a specific purpose, with voter approval.