Silver lining to COVID cloud: Increased sales tax revenue
At their regular weekly meeting Monday morning, which was live-streamed via the Ozark County page on Facebook, Ozark County Commissioners discussed both the positive and negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Mike Parson’s “Stay Home Missouri” order, which has been extended to May 3.
The upside of the current situation, said Presiding Commissioner John Turner, is that the county’s sales tax revenue is up 17 percent from this time last year. “Our big sales tax drivers, like Dollar General and Town & Country, are going crazy. People are shopping like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “I think people are shopping in Ozark County rather than driving to Mountain Home, West Plains, Ava. The stores have done a phenomenal job of stocking and being open. Other than toilet paper, you can buy about anything you want to.”
Turner added, though, that, “When we move on to next month, with no canoe rentals, the restaurants or bars not generating the usual income, it may flatten out.”
He also noted that revenue could fall “if people quit buying vehicles.”
Western District Commissioner Greg Donley agreed. “That’s where we get the lion’s share of tax – on stuff sold with titles.”
Donley added, “If we don’t have things opened up by Memorial Day and halfway back to normal, we’re going to see times like our forefathers seen back in the 30s. We’re going to let things go too far if we’re not careful.”
Referring to government bailout and stimulus programs recently passed by Congress, Donley said, “You can’t continually write people checks to supplement these down times. Folks, a trillion dollars is a thousand billion. Right now we’re just printing money. I want to say to the people against socialism, that’s all this is: money for [doing] nothing. So everybody that’s getting this money – and I’ll get some too – it’s socialism, folks. That’s all it is.”
Donley also said that “some people are making more on unemployment than they made when they were working.”
Still no positive cases here
In response to Donley’s comments, Ozark County Health Department administrator Rhonda Suter pointed out that 295 families were served at the two weekly drive-through distributions offered this month by the Ozark County Food Pantry: 205 families on April 8 plus 90 more on April 15 – up from the usual 250 total families served most months, she said.
“In May we expect to see more,” she said, “because families have kids home they normally don’t have home to feed.”
Asked whether most people who get food from the food pantry are on food stamps, Suter said some are, and some aren’t. “But I can tell you, everyone who came through the line was very, very appreciative.”
Suter said the community had responded generously with donations and volunteers the way “our community always comes together. This is a very caring, giving community and we appreciate everything. It’s been great.” (See page 1 of this week’s Times for a story about an upcoming countywide program to support the food pantry on April 29.)
Suter said Ozark County is “blessed” to still have no reported positive cases of COVID-19, based on the 46 tests that had been done at Ozark County’s three medical clinics – all of which came back negative.
She pointed out that Ozark County and Douglas County, which also has no positive cases, are surrounded by counties where positive cases have been reported.
The Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services website Monday night reported these numbers: Taney County, 9 positive cases, 1 death; and Howell County, 5 positive cases, no deaths. According to the Arkansas Department of Health website, Baxter County, Arkansas, has had five positive cases and no deaths.
As of Monday night, Missouri had 5,807 positive cases statewide and 177 deaths. Arkansas had 1,923 positive cases and 41 deaths.
COVID-19’s impact on the upcoming election
Ozark County resident Dennis Lawson, who attended the Monday morning meeting, asked about possible changes that might occur with the April 7 general municipal election, which Gov. Parson has rescheduled for June 2 due to the pandemic.
County Clerk Brian Wise responded that Missouri statutes authorize absentee voting for six specific reasons. The Missouri Association of County Clerks, he said, strongly endorses the idea of “no-excuse absentee voting,” but so far, legislation allowing it has not been passed by the Missouri General Assembly.
No-excuse absentee voting is very different from early voting, Wise said. No-excuse absentee voting would not cause the county any additional election expense, “But early voting would be exceptionally expensive. This year, it would cost us an extra $20,000 to $25,000,” he said.
Wise noted that the Missouri Secretary of State is sending county clerks kits of supplies such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to help voters and election judges stay safe and avoid spreading the virus on Election Day. “We’ll lean on signage [cautioning voters about things such as social distancing] and training election judges,” he said
Asked about the possibility of drive-through voting, Wise said right now it’s not an option. “Every single second of the whole [election] day is based off statutes,” he said, “and I have a lot of questions about drive-thru voting. For instance, where does that ballot go right after it leaves the hand of the person who voted it? I can’t have a $7,000 [voting] machine sitting outside in the rain.”
However, Wise said, curbside voting is offered – usually for those with mobility issues. “I would hate to see people take advantage of that just so they don’t have to go inside,” he said.
Recalled N95 masks
Ozark County Emergency Manager Curtis Ledbetter told the commission that the State Emergency Management Agency had provided N95 respirator masks for the county’s sheriff’s department and volunteer fire departments. However, 20 of the masks turned out to be KN95 masks instead of N95 and had to be returned to SEMA due to a recall, Ledbetter said.
A news release from the Missouri Department of Public Safety said the almost 4 million KN95 masks SEMA ordered “performed to specifications but did not fit the way we expected them to.” Public Safety Director Sandy Karsten said in the release that the state had received refunds from the vendors of those masks.
Ledbetter told the Times Monday that he had been given replacement masks and had a total of 261 N95 masks that he was distributing to the county’s fire departments, along with six masks issued to the sheriff’s department.