Clay County Detention Center

Courier-Tribune file photo

Clay County Sheriff Will Akin is asking for public support at the ballot box by way of approval of the law enforcement sales tax renewal on the Nov. 2 ballot. The tax, historically put to voters every 12 years, provides for 25% of the sheriff’s office budget, which includes operations at Clay County Detention Center.

CLAY COUNTY — Voters in the county will decide the funding fate of many operations of the sheriff’s office by voting for or against continuance of the existing one-eighth cent law enforcement sales tax. The tax, in effect since 1998, funds about a quarter of the agency’s roughly $20 million annual budget.

“This is a bottom line need for the sheriff’s office because 81% of our budget goes to personnel and this is 25% of the budget,” Sheriff Will Akin told the Courier-Tribune this week of the tax. The sheriff’s office employs about 230, nearly 150 of those employees are deputies.

In addition to personnel, Akin said the sheriff’s office has large contractual obligations that his office must pay for to run Clay County Detention Center, the county jail in Liberty. The annual tax revenue helps pay for those expenses. The average daily detention population varied from 309 in 2010 to 356 in 2017 and 2018. According to sheriff’s office staff, COVID-19 protocols have also placed increased demands on detention staff and the facility.

“The medical for our jail, the food contract for our inmates, those are two of the biggest (other required expenses). Those are actually the two that got us into the lawsuit with the previous county administration. Our medical contract is about $1 million and our food services contract is around $600,000,” the sheriff said.

In addition to increased patrol and detention duties, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office also has worked to provide school resource deputies in the growing North Kansas City School District. Seventeen deputies now serve the district, up from eight in 2009.

Akin, who has been discussing the tax renewal with civic groups around the county, said some voters have expressed confusion on which county government entity will control the funds and what “maintenance” projects will be funded if the tax is renewed as the county commission approves the overall budget, including that of the sheriff’s office.

“All this money comes directly to the sheriff’s office,” he said of the tax, adding ballot language includes an oversight component in the form of an audit. “The maintenance of it refers to the jail and our sheriff’s office facilities, but the auditing piece is to ensure it doesn’t go anywhere else.”

The sales tax has been put to voters for renewal every 12 years since its inception. In the last fiscal year, it generated about $5 million.

“I know $5 million may sound like a lot, but an eighth-cent sales tax equates to just 2.5 cents on a $20 purchase. A significant portion is paid by visitors that shop or dine in the county,” said the sheriff.

For this go-round of the tax renewal effort, the current Clay County Commission voted to remove the 12-year sunset on the tax, which is reflected in the ballot language.

“For most Clay County residents, this will be the only item on the Nov. 2 ballot. To hold the election will cost about $100,000. Removing the sunset would eliminate future election costs, and the County Commission could vote to repeal the tax at any time. The revenue generated by the tax would be audited annually,” states a sheriff’s office release.

The ballot language reads, “Shall the county of Clay extend and impose a countywide sales tax at the rate of one-eighth of 1% for the purpose of providing law enforcement services for the county to include maintenance of current law enforcement facilities and all operational costs to provide for the incarceration of inmates, including additional law enforcement personnel?”

This tax, if continued, will not increase the county’s current sales tax levy.

If the measure fails at the ballot box, Akin said how the county and sheriff’s office will offset the loss is unknown, but it would mean a direct, negative impact countywide.

“The alternative, I don’t know, but what I will do is work with the commission and the county budget committee to come up with a solution,” he said. “We’re talking $5 million. That’s going to have a direct impact to every corner of the county. … How that would get done, it’s going to take a lot of elected officials, a lot of managers coming together through teamwork and figuring out the solution and where people can cut.”