Sheriff forced to lay off seven more employees: Sheriff’s department budget issue becomes major crisis; two deputies, five other staffers let go last week
The recent budget woes of the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department have suddenly exploded into a full-blown, four alarm crisis.
Sheriff Cass Martin said Monday he was forced to lay off two full-time deputies and five other employees last week. The sheriff said that due to the matter being a sensitive personnel issue, he could not identify the employees who have been laid off.
The layoffs represent a 30 percent reduction in staff at the sheriff’s department. This, after Martin recently announced the department was reducing patrols and only responding to crimes of a violent nature, moves he made to cut costs and keep the law enforcement budget from being in the red.
The announcement came Monday morning after Ozark County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Weatherman addressed the county commissioners and asked them if it was time to put a law enforcement sales tax increase on the ballot.
Martin, who was in attendance at the meeting, was then asked by Presiding Commissioner John Turner his opinion: “I don’t know. Cass, are we at the point where we need to put a sales tax on the ballot?” Turner asked. “Yes,” Martin replied.
Weatherman then told commissioners that the sheriff’s department just last week had to reduce its workforce by 30 percent.
The Ozark County Times then questioned Martin about whether there had been additional layoffs at the jail since an overnight dispatcher position was eliminated earlier in the year. Martin then replied that seven employees had been laid off, including two full-time deputies.
“We are doing what we have to do. I don’t like it,” Martin said.
Commissioners then discussed at some length the idea of putting a half cent sales tax for law enforcement on the November ballot.
Currently, the Ozark County Sheriff’s Department is funded almost exclusively by a half-cent sales tax that brings in usually around $400,000 to $425,000 per year.
“That’s not nearly enough to fund that department … not even close, and it never has been,” County Clerk Brian Wise said. “You’re talking about a budget of somewhere around a million dollars a year. So no, it’s not even close.”
Wise said the sheriff’s department does have some other revenue, including law enforcement contracts with Gainesville and Theodosia and the department gets sporadic revenue from the state for prisoner cost reimbursements.
“Everybody in our jail is a state prisoner,” Turner explained. “We don’t have any county laws on the books that people are getting arrested for. When they face charges it’s always the State of Missouri vs. whoever … but the state is still paying the same measly $22 per diem that they were paying eight years ago when I first took office,” Turner said. “And that’s if you get any money at all.”
Turner said the state is not quick to reimburse for prisoner per diem, and most of the time they don’t pay the amount they are supposed to.
Weatherman said he thought that if the county does propose a half-cent sales tax to the voters that commissioners should consider putting a 10-year sunset clause on it, meaning the tax would expire in 10 years.
“Who knows where we will be in 10 years,” Weatherman said. “They’re currently building a new Dollar General store in Dora, and I understand it’s going to be a full-blown grocery store … although on three different occasions in the last four years our legislature has come within three votes of taking food off the sales tax list.”
“I have no confidence in the state legislature,” Turner said. “They’ll pass laws that cost us money every day. They balance their budget on the back of the counties … I have zero confidence in them. They’re not going to help us at all. They’re not going to bail us out. In fact they’re probably going to do something stupid to make it harder for the counties,” Turner said.
Turner said that extremely high fuel costs, food, equipment and other supply price surges have pushed the sheriff’s department into budget crisis.
“County general and road and bridge are not feeling the heat like the sheriff’s department is because, like for the road and bridge, we have FEMA projects that provide some extra money,” Turner explained. “But if we go two or three years without FEMA money then I could see road and bridge being forced to cut back,” he added.
Turner said he disagrees with the prosecutor on the 10-year sunset idea. “In 10 years if they don’t pass it again then the sheriff’s department will be worse off then than they are now,” Turner said.
Western District Commissioner Layne Nance agreed with leaving out the sunset clause. “It’s not going to be cheaper to operate 10 years from now, I can guarantee you that,” Nance said.
“We have to plan for this not passing,” Turner said. “There’s no guarantee this will pass. It may very well not pass.”
Weatherman said that other counties are facing similar issues. “There are seven counties right now in the state of Missouri which either have shuttered their jails or are within 90 days of having to financially to do so with no other choice,” Weatherman said.
Turner reiterated the fact that several Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers patrol Ozark County. “If the crooks think it’s open season in Ozark County, they’re wrong,” Turner said.
The Times has learned that, in fact, the MSHP has increased its coverage on the eastern and western sides of the county at the request of Martin due to the budget crisis.
Weatherman said it’s important to note that the troopers patrol for traffic violations and crashes and will respond to emergencies, but their work in the county is almost never investigatory.
Current tax breakdown
Ozark County collects local sales tax, broken down as follows: 1 cent (per dollar spent) to general revenue, half a cent to road and bridge (split between east and west), half a cent to law enforcement and half a cent to Ozark County Ambulance (which operates autonomously outside the county budget); for a total of 2.5 cents per dollar. If the sales tax for law enforcement were to be approved by voters, that would give that department 1 full cent per dollar spent (which by law is the maximum amount for a sales tax for any one particular fund) for a total local sales tax of 3 cents.
Currently, Wise said, Ozark County has a lower minimum sales tax rate than 81 percent of Missouri counties.
Wise said sales tax collection has been sort of a wild roller coaster ride this year, with strong sales early on and then a few months of flat revenues. He said July collections have rebounded nicely, but overall sales tax collections were still not impressive for the year with only about a 3.5 percent increase.
Wise said it’s impossible to compare Ozark County to its neighboring counties, because our neighbors all have much larger towns and probably several dozens more local businesses collecting tax that bolsters the sales tax collection.
Sheriff doing all he can
Martin said he is doing “everything in my power to cut costs while still providing good law enforcement” for Ozark County.
At the beginning of the year Martin announced that, in order to save money, he would personally cut the grass at the jail and service the department’s patrol vehicles.
“We have our deputies wearing several different hats now,” Martin said. “They’re running around doing everyone’s job.”
Martin had previously said his department was also looking into grants to fund a project to transition the jail to solar power to cut utility costs.
Last month the sheriff posted on social media that his department would be cutting patrols and minor and non-violent crimes would have to be handled over the phone or residents would have to come into the sheriff’s office to file a report.
Martin, who is in his first term as sheriff, said there was no way to know that his administration would face these challenges.
“There’s no way I could have seen this coming when I ran for sheriff,” Martin said, who won the sheriff’s race in November of 2020 and took office in January 2021.
Officials said previous sheriffs had additional revenue sources by housing county inmates from other area counties which have since built new jails.
“We’re going to continue to work with Cass and his department to make sure we have law enforcement,” Turner said.
Commissioners couldn’t take action on the issue of putting the sales tax matter on the ballot since the topic wasn’t listed on the meeting agenda and was brought up during the citizen comment portion of Monday’s commissioners meeting.
Turner said he expects the issue to be on the agenda for the Aug. 15 or the Aug. 22 meeting. At that time commissioners can discuss the matter more and vote whether or not to place the proposal on the November general election ballot.
Ozark County voters rejected a proposal in April that would have applied the local 2.5% sales tax rate to internet and catalog sales.