The Cole County Commission on Thursday voted to join the state and Jefferson City in closing government offices on Christmas Eve. However, it wasn’t an easy decision.
Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler told commissioners the county should pay his essential personnel on duty that day for the hours they work that day, plus eight hours of straight pay. He said he is still operating short staffed with 12 positions open, and he has been unable to give the staff time off as would normally occur under the rules for county employees.
He suggested most of the clerks and office staff would receive the day off with pay. However, for essential personnel, including members of the patrol division, support services and jail staff, would be paid for the hours they work plus eight hours of straight pay. He estimated the eight hours of straight pay would cost $7,708, which he said he has in his salary budget.
If the county followed this practice with the sheriff’s department, commissioners told Wheeler, they would have to treat essential staff similarly at the county’s ambulance service and the Prenger Juvenile Attention Center where staff has to be on duty to monitor juveniles in custody. They said it could also pertain to the county’s public works department should there be inclement weather that day.
The commission voted 2-0 to grant the paid day off for all workers, plus paying essential employees for any hours worked on that day. Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman and Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher voted in favor while Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle abstained.
In other business Thursday, the commission directed staff to set up a phone meeting with George Sansoucy, an engineer who has been an expert witness for Cole and other counties and school districts involved in an ongoing court case concerning assessed property values for Ameren Missouri’s natural gas facilities in 2013.
Sansoucy has been contracted to testify for the counties and school districts with information they say supports a higher property value for the Ameren facilities.
The State Tax Commission held a hearing in September to determine the appropriate depreciation deduction taken from the original value calculated by Cole County Assessor Chris Estes on Ameren’s gas facilities. How soon the commission could come to a decision is unknown.
Cole County has paid nearly $529,500 in legal fees, which includes paying Sansoucy, since the case began. Those bills continue to come in with some going above the amount contracted with the county, and that has commissioners concerned. As of Thursday, there was $54,000 in outstanding invoices due.
In 2013, Jefferson City Public Schools, the Blair Oaks School District, Cole R-1 (Russellville) School District, Missouri River Regional Library and Jefferson City government entered into a cost-sharing agreement with Cole County for fees associated with the case. As of Thursday, the five taxing districts have paid $118,405.
The commission and those same officials discussed the status of the case in February, but no votes or actions were taken during the meeting. Commissioners on Thursday said they wanted to meet again with the representatives.
For as long as the legal battle continues, the property taxes Ameren has paid under protest remain locked in escrow with the counties — revenue not flowing into the budgets of taxing districts like public schools, fire departments, libraries, public works, the counties and the state.
Cole County officials have said the difference between Estes’ assessed value of $17,040,760 for 2013 and Ameren’s calculation of $6,559,522 for the same year means the county’s various taxing entities could lose around $600,000 in revenue — with Jefferson City’s Public Schools losing approximately $400,000.
Scheperle said the county doesn’t stand to lose that much if it loses the legal argument and it was time to see how much the other parties involved were willing to invest in the legal fight. He said it will take quite a while for the county to recoup what it has spent in legal bills in the case.
Scheperle said the legal bill for Cape Girardeau, which is one of the other counties in this case, is being paid by its school district, which stands to lose the most.
Hoelscher said the other Cole County groups should help with the costs, but it is still the county’s role to defend the assessor’s assessments.