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Rural counties seek their own tax increases to boost law enforcement salaries

David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Four rural counties outside St. Louis will ask their voters Tuesday for more money in an effort to keep officers at their departments and make it easier to hire new ones.

The tax increase requests in Franklin, Gasconade, Jefferson and Warren counties come less than six months after St. Louis voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to boost funding for public safety. A very similar measure passed in St. Louis Countya year ago.

“In Jefferson County, officers would start at $37,900 and they would top out around $46,000,” said sheriff Dave Marshak. “As soon as they cross the river and go to St. Louis County or St. Charles, they’re starting around $60,000. There’s a huge pay gap, and the result is that we don’t have enough officers to fill the current positions that we have available.”

Marshak is asking residents in unincorporated Jefferson County to support a property tax of 35 cents for every $100 of assessed valuation. It’s expected to generate at least $6.5 million a year, all of which will to toward “retaining, hiring, equipping and training” sheriff’s deputies. Marshak said his men and women would get a raise of almost 30 percent.

“By offering a competitive salary, we’d be able to fill the vacancies that we have now, plus put some additional officers on the street,” he said. “The other money will be used to upgrade their in-car computers so we can use GPS dispatching and get people in our county the fastest response times possible.”

In Franklin County, sheriff Steve Pelton hopes voters approve a half-cent sales tax increase that would cover pay raises and an addition to the county jail. Pelton’s deputies and officers with municipal departments would all see larger paychecks.

“I was talking to a chief yesterday at a Proposition P information meeting, and he has a 28-man department and has lost 14 officers to taking higher-paying jobs,” Pelton said. The $3 million from the sales tax hike that would go to raises isn’t enough to completely close the gap with St. Louis County, he said, but Franklin County is “a great place to live, a great place to raise your family, a great place to work.”

The remaining $3 million a year would allow Franklin County to build an addition to its jail, which was constructed in 1986 with 107 beds. It now routinely houses close to 200 people, Pelton said.

“Our population has grown substantially over the last 31, 32 years,” he said. “With crime trends, the average length of stay, law enforcement making better cases, we’re getting a lot more criminals off the street. We just need a place to be able to house them.”

Warren County voters will consider a half-cent sales tax increase for its sheriff’s department and jail. According to the official ballot language, Proposition P would “enable the sheriff’s department to hire additional deputies and jail staff, provide competitive wages to reduce turnover, increase patrol coverage, decrease response times, combat local drug and crime trends, and increase officer and public safety throughout Warren County.” Gasconade County residents are also being asked to boost their sales tax one-half of one percent “for the purpose of providing law enforcement services in the county.”

Voter approval of all four tax increases could force other counties to put their own funding requests on future ballots — a ripple effect that Marshak acknowledged.

“Law enforcement right now is not sustainable, and that’s a concern, because there’s simply not enough people coming into the profession right now to counter the ones who are leaving,” he said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.