Jackson County making last-minute move on levies

Jeff Fox
The Examiner

Jackson County legislators are scheduled to meet Wednesday morning to set the county’s main tax levy for operations next year, and they appear poised to live with lower revenues.

That, however, is not the recommendation of the office of County Executive Frank White Jr. 

The reduction being considered amounts to $10 in taxes on a $100,000 home, said County Administrator Troy Schulte, who also pointed out that the county’s portion of a property owner’s total tax bill is, on average, about 7 percent. The county collects and distributes taxes for many local jurisdictions, and local school districts by far account for the biggest portion of that.

Other local jurisdictions generally are not going with a lower levy for next year, Schulte said.

“So my sense is the tax relief we’re attempting to provide won’t be seen in the average taxpayer, because the other tax jurisdictions will adjust their levy up to offset the reduced valuations,” Schulte said.

Here’s the issue: The economy has sagged, and property assessments across the county keep falling as the thousands of appealed assessments from last year continue to be settled. In that sense, county, city and school officials are shooting at a moving target. Under state law, local governments can raise the levy rate to keep revenue flat, meaning taxpayers on average would not pay more though they would see a higher rate.

Some legislators have said they cannot support that, preferring to keep the same rate and the lower revenues. Wednesday is the state’s deadline for local governments to act, and the levy is on the agenda of Wednesday’s special meeting.

Legislators on Monday did roll up two smaller, specialized levies – that is, raised them to keep revenues flat. One is the mental health levy, and the other is the sheltered workshop levy.

Advocates stressed the importance of both.

Jake Jacobs, executive director of Developmental Disability Services of Jackson County, told legislators his group serves 3,500 county residents daily, including getting 500 people to work. 

“We exist to fund programs and services in Jackson County for people with developmental disabilities,” he said.

Those services also include four sheltered workshops, three day programs, two residential programs, services for those with Down syndrome, the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, and the Mattie Rhodes Center in Kansas City. It also works with what Jacobs described as 13 major service providers.

“This is a major way that our local funding provided by Jackson County taxpayers makes a real difference in local lives,” he said.

Half of the $16 million budget for Developmental Disabilities Services comes from the levy, and that budget has already been hit. Revenue is down $400,000, and the DDS had to give $101,000 back to the county as a result of the ongoing property assessment appeals. Jacobs said with more than 1,000 cases yet to be settled it’s unknown how much more of a clawback the county will require.

Going with the proposal to hold the levy rate steady would have been another $377,000 hit, he said.

“We are a vital part of the local disability services, and more cuts to our funding will harm some of the most vulnerable people and families in our communities,” Jacobs said. “The harm will not just fall on them and us, but it will also fall on those struggling local providers who count on our funding to make it through this current crisis. We are assisting them to get back on their feet, and without us their services will end or be drastically reduced.”

Bruce Eddy, executive director of the Community Mental Health Fund, had similar concerns. The fund has $13 million a year to serve about 16,000 people, roughly $700 a person.

“We tend to work with folks that have chronic and persistent mental illness, so that’s not very much money for people that have a chronic disease,” he said.

Keeping the same mental health levy, rather than rolling it higher, would have meant a loss of $592,500.

“So it’s a significant difference,” he said.

In many instances, the fund works with people to sign up for Medicaid if eligible and to pick up services Medicaid in Missouri will not cover. He underlined how restrictive the state’s Medicaid rules are.

“In Missouri, a single mom with two kids that works at McDonald’s makes too much money to be on Medicaid,” he said, “so that’s what we tend to pay for.”

One legislator, Ronald Finley, D-Kansas City, characterized the rate change as a tax increase and voted no. 

“We don’t have to hit the people, and we shouldn’t hit the people,” he said.