Jefferson City leaders are saying low wages paid to police officers and firefighters is preventing the departments from being properly staffed, resulting in declining service that – if not changed – will have a detrimental effect on quality of life in the city.
Their solution is a 1/4 cent increase in the city’s sales tax that will generate an additional $2.8 million annually for spending on public safety. The measure must be approved by voters and is the only ballot question for the Nov. 2 general election.
“We’re trying to educate everybody about the importance of this tax,” said Carlos Graham, a Lincoln University administrator who is co-chair of the JC Citizens for Public Safety committee explaining the proposal to civic groups.
Graham recently spent eight years as a Ward 4 councilman, all of them on the public safety committee.
“I hate to say it, but I’m afraid it’s coming down to somebody finding themselves in a position to call 911 and the answer is going to be ‘sorry, we can’t send anybody right now, but we’ll have someone there as soon as we can’ instead of ‘we are enroute.’ We’re getting this in front of voters to let them decide if they want to continue to feel safe in the community we love.”
The 1/4 cent increase would take effect on April 1, 2022 which coincides with a scheduled 1/8 cent rollback in Cole County’s sales tax earmarked for public safety – resulting in a net 1/8 cent increase to the sale tax. That translates to $1.25 in additional tax per $1,000 of purchases. The current sales tax rate is 7.725 percent.
The local Fraternal Order of Police, led by officers Jeremy Bowman and Jason Ambler, put together an informational program they are presenting with the JC Citizens for Public Safety. Their presentation points out that the department has turned over 26 (of about 90) officers since 2018, losing 246 years of combined experience, community contacts and skill sets.
“Our success is based on our relationships with the community,” Bowman said. “That’s how we solve crime. Experienced officers build relationships and we’re losing that experience to other agencies. Policing is not a plug-and-play business. You can’t hire a rookie and expect him to go out and perform like a veteran. The community might not be seeing this but we’re seeing it every day. We’re not able to deliver this type of service the community expects because we’re not fully staffed.”
The FOP maintains research on 30 cities with between 20,000 and 80,000 population. Jefferson City ranks in the middle of the group in crime rate. But among its nearest 15 similar cities in crime rate, it ranks last in starting pay for police officers at $38,812. It is also last among nearby departments, behind Missouri State Highway Patrol ($46,536), Columbia PD ($47,328), Boone County Sheriff ($43,555), Callaway County Sheriff ($41,200) and Cole County Sheriff ($40,000, plus $3,000 incentive.)
“We offer amazing training,” Ambler said. “Our department is reputable and respected. You can get trained here and forgo steps and grades elsewhere. Guys just leave for greener pastures.”
Bowman and Ambler also address the increase in violent crime they believe is often unrecognized by city residents. They point out that many citizens are surprised to learn Jefferson City’s crime rate is very similar to the rate in Columbia. Also, a USA Today report ranked Missouri the fourth most violent state in the nation. The same report ranked St. Louis No. 1 most dangerous city in the nation, Kansas City No. 5 and, surprisingly, Springfield No. 12.
“We’re right in the middle of those cities,” Bowman said. “How can we not expect violence in Jefferson City?”
The two officers back it up with statistics from Jefferson City that show steadily increasing year-over-year numbers of weapons incidents. Also, assaults of officers, resisting arrests and unlawful use of weapons arrests have increased significantly every year since 2018. Officers were involved in shootings in 2017, 2019, 2020 and twice so far in 2021.
“It takes a special person to serve and protect the community they live for this amount of money,” Graham said.
The additional tax will also fund equipment. The fire department will need equipment for a planned new fire station. And the police department is one of only four in its 30-city comparison group that still doesn’t have body cameras.
The city council has been grappling with the funding of body cameras because of the ongoing costs after the initial $200,000 investment. Data generated by the cameras becomes a public record and must be organized, stored and available for record requests – all at significant expense.
“I’m often asked about a sunset on the tax,” Graham said. “But when you look at what it would fund, salaries and equipment like the body cameras, if you were to lose an election in the future it would be chaotic at that point.”
The committee members hope citizens see the tax increase as an investment in their community.
“Public safety is a foundation of good economic development, economic growth,” Ambler said. “For people to move to a town, for a town to grow, you have to have good police and fire protection.”
“Policing is only as strong as a community allows it to be,” Bowman said. “I think Jefferson City citizens want and expect excellent public safety, but many are unaware of this data. At the end of the day, we all have the same goal which is to live in a community where we all feel safe, and this is a way to help us get there.”
In the 30-city comparison group, Jefferson City’s 7.725 percent rate ranks 28th. Arnold is No.1 at 10.35 percent. Nixa is No. 30 at 7.475 percent. Jefferson City is the only of the cities without a public safety sales tax.