On the evening of July 20, 2021, I attended the Camden County Republican Club meeting at 7:00 p.m. Mark McCloskey was scheduled to be the guest speaker, but I was really attending to see Camden County Sheriff Tony Helms speak in favor of the ¼ percent increase in sales tax that will be on the ballot on August 3, 2021. The revenue for this sales tax is intended to go solely to the Camden County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO). This is a summary of the meeting.
The back of the printed agenda for the meeting had the sales tax increase ballot language printed on it but it made no mention of the portion of the ordnance that restricts the CCSO budget from being reduced by the Commission unless there is a significant reduction in county revenue. I could hear people in the audience complaining about the language on the ballot as they were reading it for the first time.
There was a good crowd present. Matt Burns was sitting with me and he set up his camera to video the event. Matt was concerned that he would forget to turn the camera when interesting things happened in the crowd and he made me promise to remind him to turn it if anything happened. In the end, both of us just stared slack-jawed at events as they unfolded and we both forgot about turning the camera. Sorry, Matt!
The President of the Republican Club, Les Larsen, sort of hosted the presentation, introduced Sheriff Helms, and asked a bunch of softball questions about the sales tax increase throughout that made it pretty apparent he was in favor of the tax increase. It sounded like the questions had been vetted through Helms prior to the event.
Sheriff Helms began his presentation by asking the CCSO employees standing in the back to stand up. They stood and there were approximately 15-20 of them present. Everyone stood and gave a round of applause for the deputies. Sheriff Helms stressed this sales tax increase was for the CCSO employees. According to him, every county around Camden County pays their employees more than Camden County does.
The Sheriff stated that he expected there would be a Mongols Motorcycle Club funeral on the coming Sunday. He estimated the funeral would draw between 750 to 1,000 Mongols and he had only 3 deputies scheduled to work during that time. He said he currently has about 38 deputies assigned to patrol Camden County. His department has a total of 70 POST-certified deputies and 120 total employees.
Sheriff Helms doesn’t believe the sales tax revenue will continue at its current increased rate of 60% over previous revenue for the next 24 months. He estimated the sales tax would bring in between $2,000,000 to $2,400,000. If the sales tax increase passes, Sheriff Helms wants to hire 14 new deputies. 10 of those deputies would be hired in the first “phase” after the sales tax increase. He would also use the new revenue to raise the hourly wage for deputies from $14.75/hr to $19.25/hr. He estimated that it would cost $750,000 to equip those 10 new deputies with vehicles, radios, guns, computers, and other equipment.
Sheriff Helms admitted that the sales tax ballot gives him no limits to what he can spend the new revenue on. He said he currently has a $7,200,000 budget that he spends however he wants. He said he thinks the commissioners support the sales tax increase because all three of them signed the ordnance for the sales tax increase. He stated that Camden County can’t support the raises he’s seeking with its current revenue and the Auditor agrees with him. The Sheriff’s salary is established by statute and his salary won’t be affected by the sales tax increase.
Last year, they were only able to raise the CCSO deputy salary to $30,000 per year. Even though CCSO receives supplemental pay from Missouri for deputies, the pension and overtime for deputies is still based on their hourly pay before the supplement. CCSO currently has no applications for deputy positions.
Besides raises for the deputies, the sales tax increase would raise jailer salaries from $14/hr to $16.50/hr and dispatchers to $16/hr.
Sheriff Helms said the CCSO is handling a much heavier call load than in past years. He told a story about stopping by his dispatch center before he left work for home. He wanted to tell the dispatchers he appreciated them but every time he tried to talk to one of the dispatchers, they had to answer a 911 call.
Sheriff Helms doesn’t believe that Camden County is going to have a large surplus at the end of the year. It costs the CCSO approximately $75,000 to equip each new deputy. They are paying approximately $40,000 each for vehicles.
According to Sheriff Helms, the wording for the sales tax increase ballot is straight out of the statute. Helms told the crowd they could look the statute up for themselves. The only portion he was allowed to change is that the increase would be for the Camden County Sheriff’s Department. Three different attorneys helped him with it. He wanted to make sure it was worded so the increase in his budget from the sales tax won’t give the Camden County commissioners an opportunity to take county revenue money from his budget.
Sheriff Helms said the tax increase will be become effective on September 1st. There was no sunset provision because Sheriff Helms doesn’t want the increase to go away and then leave him with a pay raise he can’t sustain. Sheriff Helms stated he hates taxes but he’s a realist.
Helms also mentioned that he is out of money to pay overtime. He can only offer deputies “comp time” for overtime and one of his deputies told him, “Sheriff, Walmart doesn’t take comp time.”
Sheriff Helms talked about checks and balances. He said, “I cannot buy a ten cent eraser or a $10,000 computer without the signature of a commissioner and the signature of the Auditor.”
Sheriff Helms said he promised the citizens two things when he took office this last time: an animal facility and raises for the deputies. He stated that he accomplished one of those promises (the animal facility) and the rest is up to the voters.
Sheriff Helms then fielded questions from the audience.
The first person spoke in favor of the sales tax increase and asked how many in the crowd supported law enforcement. Practically everyone in the audience raised their hand. He stressed the importance of funding the deputies because they perform a critical role in our community and pointed out that low pay makes it hard to keep employees.
The second person had a husband who worked dispatch but the pay was too bad so he had to leave his dispatch job. She supported the deputies but had a problem with the ambiguity of the sales tax increase language. She had no problem with them getting raises but needed more specific language. Sheriff Helms responded that the 2022 budget will show people where the money is going. Unspent funds from the sales tax increase will stay in a trust fund.
Les Larsen then said they would just take one more question.
Neal Gist was given the microphone and stated the Missouri GOP platform has two particular principles: Lower Taxes and Balance the Budget. Camden County is one of the wealthiest counties in Missouri and one of the few first class counties without a charter. He stated that Camden County has enough revenue to pay the deputies much more than is proposed by the sales tax increase and it can be done without the sales tax increase. Gist objected to the Sheriff using the presence of the CCSO employees and having them stand up during his presentation in an attempt to influence the opinions of the audience.
Sheriff Helms disputed the budget numbers Neal Gist quoted and stated that only a portion of the budget is usable by the county. (Dave: Some of these discrepancies are likely explained by the inclusion of pass through money Camden County receives that is already earmarked for school districts and other recipients). Helms offered as an example that his budget is $8,000,000 but only $7,200,000 is available to him. The remainder goes to the narcotics task force.
Gist responded that it is a matter of prioritizing to get the deputies what they deserve.
Another person in the audience then stated that in the LEST alone, the revenue has increased $1,500,000 over the past 6 years (Law Enforcement Sales Tax is the current tax money received for Camden County law enforcement). He said LEST revenue has increased every single year since its inception except one year.
Sheriff Helms responded that he needs $2,100,000 per year and where would the difference above that $1,500,000 come from?
The person asked if the Sheriff needed $2,100,000 per year to fund the increases he had just described. When Sheriff Helms said he did, the guy said that was a lie just based on the numbers Helms had just presented. They started arguing about it. The guy called the Sheriff a charlatan and a liar. It was back and forth. Matt and I just stared. The video camera did not get turned. The guy stormed out.
The final person had driven to the meeting from Fort Leonard Wood and he asked if there were other support organizations that could help the deputies besides raises. Judging by Sheriff Helms’ response, it doesn’t seem like there is anything like that available.
Sheriff Helms said he has asked the commissioners for raises for the deputies for 4 years and they have refused him.
Sheriff Helms said Camden County has a $5,000,000 rollover. He initially said the rollover is mandated by the state but quickly corrected himself. He then said the rollover is recommended and Camden County was written up for not having it in a state audit. Sheriff Helms was still angry that he had been called a liar by the guy who left. Sheriff Helms explained the tax increase is not about him and asked people to not take it out on the deputies.
The CCRC President, Les Larsen, then tried to wrap it up but a couple people yelled out comments that were for or against the sales tax increase. And that closed out this portion of the CCRC meeting.
Some comments about this meeting.
Sheriff Helms definitely used the presence of his employees at the meeting to maximum advantage. It was a bit of theater. It did put people who support the deputies but don’t want higher taxes in an uncomfortable position. I wonder if he ever used this same tactic on the Camden County Commission when he tried to get them to raise his deputies’ salaries?
Helms also played up the concerns residents had about the upcoming Mongols funeral when he told them he only has three deputies working during the funeral. I believe this is CCSO’s normal patrol deployment. Other police officers from nearby agencies and the MHP will be available too but Sheriff Helms didn’t say anything about them.
Sheriff Helms stated that the ballot language for the sales tax increase is required by statute and encouraged people to go look it up so I did. Ballot language for LEST for all Missouri counties except for certain first class charter counties is covered by Missouri Revised Statute 67.582. According to this statute the ballot would have only been required to read at a minimum:
“Shall the county of Camden impose a countywide sales tax of one quarter of one percent (¼ of 1%) for the purposes of providing law enforcement services for the county?”
So the Sheriff appears to be wrong about this. The ballot language is not limited by the statute but must at least have this statement in it. Most of the ballot language in the Camden County ballot actually looks like it was copied from Miller County’s recent LEST ballot measure which had a sunset provision attached.
The Sheriff said he doesn’t have money for overtime. This could be remedied by going to the Commission and asking for a Budget Amendment to transfer revenue into CCSO for overtime. Budget amendments come before the Commission all of the time. The Auditor already told me he has money earmarked from the Miscellaneous fund to cover upcoming holiday weekend overtime for the deputies. I’m curious why Sheriff Helms doesn’t just ask for this so he doesn’t have to make the deputies work for comp time.
I thought it was interesting that Sheriff Helms mentioned Camden County’s $5,000,000 rollover reserve. No one has ever mentioned this at any meetings before but it did come up on the Citizens for a Better Camden County Facebook page. If you had any doubts that Camden County government reads Facebook, they can be dispelled now. Helms started to say that the rollover was required by statute but stopped himself and said instead that it was a recommendation and the county was written up for not having it on a state audit. If you read Page 24 of the Camden County 2021 Budget, this rollover reserve of $5,000,000 is part of Camden County’s Fiscal Policy. It is self-imposed.
Does the Sheriff control his budget or not? In the beginning, Helms said he has unlimited ability to do whatever he wants with his budget. Later, he said he can’t buy a “10 cent eraser” without a signature from a commissioner and the Auditor. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways.
Finally, Sheriff Helms placed the blame for the deputies’ low salaries on the Commission. He tried to be diplomatic about this but he basically said that he had tried to get raises for them for 4 years and had been refused by the Commission.
The next morning I attended the Camdenton Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting so I could hear Sheriff Helms’ presentation about the sales tax increase to them. I should have that summary ready by tomorrow morning so stay tuned.