If you are confused how a citizen advisory group — convened explicitly to address crowding in the Platte County jail — issued a curious recommendation to dig into park tax revenues and give it to law enforcement, don’t worry, you’re not the only one.
Critics of such a move say the real driver was the county’s unfunded costs for a police radio system.
“I wouldn’t call it a logical process,” said Beverlee Roper, 1st District commissioner. “I would say that there are some that feel parks are an amenity, not a necessity. Therefore, they feel it is a soft cost, if you will, as opposed to the sheriff.”
“But the fact is that citizens of Platte County voted for that half-cent sales tax (dedicated to just the parks),” she said.
Last week, the County Commission chose not to move forward on the parks tax realignment in time for the November ballot.
So, after 90 days of brainstorming punctuated by several episodes of political drama on the committee, Platte County is still missing a funding mechanism for adding jail beds someday.
The nine-member committee was asked to focus on the need for jail expansion, potentially housing inmates from Kansas City, space needs for the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices and funding for facility expansion.
But the committee’s deliberations also dredged up the unfunded radio debt, arising from the lease of a federally mandated narrow-band police radio system.
Moving forward, the county commissioners voted last week to increase property taxes from 1 cent to 6 cents per $100 of assessed value, which Roper said was done with an eye to satisfying the radio debt.
Roper and 2nd District Commissioner Duane Soper both voted for the tax increase. Presiding Commissioner Jason Brown voted against the tax. Roper said Brown’s no vote was in keeping with his no-new-taxes pledge.
That anti-tax platform was central to the jail committee’s decision-making, according to some who have worked with and within the citizen advisory group.
“What you have is a guy that signs a lease for $1.2 million a year (for the police radio system) and doesn’t provide a funding stream for it,” Roper said without naming Brown specifically.
“Yet, when the vote is taken, the guy votes no for the property tax, and the two responsible commissioners have to take action,” Roper said.
Roper speculated that he then could run for higher office while boasting that he never voted for new taxes.
Brown did not respond to requests for comment.
James Roberts, the onetime chairman of the now-retired jail committee, said the committee went south with the involvement of three appointees with “hidden agendas.” He said they fully intended to use the group as a means to cut into the park tax, an objective they voiced from the first meeting.
Roberts did not name Brown specifically, but credited their appointment to “a single commissioner trying to get rid of the parks tax so he can cover (the radio debt).”
The unnamed commissioner, Roberts said, “had a big pile of manure in his hands, and he thought the jail committee was the way to deal with it.”
Roper said the appointment of the advisory group follows Platte County’s long tradition of collaborating with its citizenry.
But through instructions given on the sly, Roberts said, the jail committee lost its way. In fact, Roberts walked out as the committee was drafting its report.
But jail advisory committee member Jacque Cox, wife of Platte County Assessor David Cox, repeatedly denied that Brown had any influence in the committee’s activities.
Asked how the parks tax became a target to funding the needs of county law enforcement, Cox recalled that “someone” had brought it up “as a way to not raise taxes.”
“But I was not directed by Jason Brown,” she said.
While the citizen group was called into action specifically to address jail crowding, Cox said it was given a “large scope.”
“Funding was part of that,” she said.
Dagmar Wood, a jail committee member named by Brown, dismissed as moot the question of whether Brown had undue influence on the group.
“Who cares if they did? You pick people who you think would be good to serve. They’re probably going to be like-minded,” she said. “But Jason never told me, ‘You will do this and you will do whatever.’”
Soper said he was “very surprised” to see the jail committee deliver the recommendation it did: to transfer 25 percent of the county parks tax — amouning to about $12 million by 2020 — to Platte County law enforcement to fund possible expansion of the jail and prosecutor’s office.
That recommendation was the only one not endorsed unanimously by the remaining committee members. But the report included sample ballot language and indicated that any leftover funds could be used to reimburse the county’s emergency fund, which has covered the radio leases so far.
Wood said she committed a lot of effort to finding out whether the parks tax realignment was legal and something that could be taken on by voters, but added that the idea to use the parks tax to pay for other needs has been around for a “long time.”
The concept wasn’t original to her, she said, but Wood did claim to have brought it before the committee.
Both Soper and Roper spoke of potential damage that a tax transfer could have done to the county’s creditworthiness and its standing before investors.
The revenues associated with that tax are dedicated to specific bonds, Roper said, so it’s bad business to shrink the revenue stream and, consequently, expand the investor risk.
Still, Roberts says, the the jail committee delivered some useful information.
The final report contained solid information on the urgency of expanding the jail’s capacity, and recommended that the county explore using the basement of the jail for future inmate housing.
The report said a new jail building wasn’t needed and it rejected a consultant’s projections that many hundreds of new jail beds would be needed over the next two decades.
Soper and Roper agreed that a basement expansion was probably the way the jail question would be solved in the future.
Roper said the jail issue will be revisited after Brown’s term expires at the end of this year. The presiding commissioner did not seek another term, and will be replaced by Ron Schieber, a current member of the Missouri House elected on a no-new-taxes platform.
Roberts described him as a “fine fellow with a great track record.”
The icing on the cake: “He’s not out running for U.S. House of Representatives.”