Our view: What will you say? Butler County voters have the chance to speak up Tuesday

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The conditions of Butler County jail were dangerous and unmanageable in 1993 when members of the Poplar Bluff Rotary Club toured the facility.

A sales tax on the November 1993 ballot was proposed to help build a new jail.

“I think we need to make a commitment to finance a new jail before we’re mandated by some outside agency,” John Holland told a Daily American Republic reporter who was on site for the tour of the facility on the fourth floor of the Butler County Courthouse.

The location provided only one entrance and exit, and no fire escape.

“There are some terrible, overcrowded conditions up there,” Holland said.

Residents approved a one-quarter cent sales tax dedicated for law enforcement purposes so that prisoners would be moved to a safer and better environment.

Butler County Sheriff’s Department is once again asking the residents it protects for funding, this time for the safety of its deputies, as well as the community.

Residents will have the opportunity Tuesday to approve a second quarter-cent sales tax for law enforcement services overseen by the sheriff’s department.

“In 2020, it is totally unacceptable to be so understaffed that only one deputy sheriff is on duty at certain hours for all of Butler Country’s 42,000 people,“ said Butler County Sheriff Mark Dobbs. “Furthermore, it is unacceptable to have only one communications officer to answer 911 calls coming in, dispatch ambulances, fire departments and police officers. There is no way one person can do that job adequately.”

The proposed tax equates to $.25 on every $100 dollars of goods purchased. Or $2.50 on a $1,000 purchase.

“We can all afford a few cents here and there,” Dobbs said. “What we can’t afford is to leave our county unprotected.”

In recent months the sheriff’s department has laid off five — one deputy/process server, three deputies and one custodian — due to budget shortfalls.

In 2010, Dobbs reports the department fielded 9,083 calls for service. In 2019, he said, the number rose to 13,520.

“The amount of calls and dangerous incidents have escalated, yet the number of officers on patrol have stayed the same,” he said.

Officials say flat sales tax revenue in recent years and rising costs now warrant a need for an additional revenue source.

In addition, the sheriff’s department covers the extra cost of the 911 services. Support for 911 still comes from an outdated funding mechanism that is based on fees charged to landline phone users, a declining source of income for many years.

The sheriff’s department also contends regularly with hundreds of thousands of dollars in late payments from the state for boarding prisoners.

“There are a lot of times that we can barely make payroll and have to get advances from general revenue funding just to make payroll,” Dobbs has said.

The department is operating on a tax passed in 1993, when gasoline was 99 cents a gallon and tires cost $40 apiece, Dobbs said.

“Prices for operations have nearly tripled since then,” he said.

Dobbs said Butler County is not alone in its financial woes.

“Cape (Girardeau) County, Stoddard County and Carter County have all approved this same amount of sales tax increase for law enforcement,” he said. “They recognized their need for additional officers, and that is where we are at as well.”

If the tax passes, Dobbs said the goal is to put more deputies on the road, patrolling neighborhoods; more investigators to work on burglaries, robberies, sexual assault and child abuse cases; and more corrections officers on duty to ensure their safety.

It has been 27 years since Butler County voters stepped up to make sure the accused and convicted criminals housed in our jail had a safer and better environment in which to be held.

On Tuesday, we have a chance to speak up and say we want safer working conditions for our deputies, and more protection for ourselves, our neighbors and our families.

What will you say?

— Daily American Republic

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