Missouri is ranked 50th among the states in funding for public health, spending about one third of the national average. Audrain County spends even less, just $7.90 per person. In this weekly Health & Wealth update, voters in Audrain went to the polls yesterday and approved a new property tax that will keep the county's struggling health department afloat. I spoke with reporter Garrett Bergquist, who has been driving around Audrain talking to voters.
By Garrett Bergquist (Mexico, Mo.)
Audrain County voters approved an initiative Tuesday to fund the county health unit with a property tax, replacing the center’s current funding system. Officials had said the unit was in danger of shutting down or severely curtailing its services under the existing system.
The initiative imposes a tax of 25 cents for every $100 of assessed property value. The tax applies to residential, commercial and farm property and goes into effect on January 1, 2013. Property taxes fund county health units in 87 of Missouri’s 114 counties.
Under current law, the Audrain City-County Health Unit receives most of its funding from a compact agreement with the cities of Mexico and Vandalia, the Audrain County Commission, and Audrain Medical Center. It’s one of only two county health units to be funded this way. Unit administrator Kevin Lowrance said Mexico had to reduce the amount it normally gives because of declining tax revenue as a result of the economy. Mexico and the Audrain County Commission each provide $107,500 out of the roughly $244,000 the unit receives from local sources each year.
The unit also gets some state and federal funding, but it only covers about 30 percent of the budget, or about $53,000.
“It’s just not feasible with $53,000 to cover all those costs that are incurred with these programs,” Lowrance said. The unit acts as the county health department, providing services such as health inspections, immunization clinics, and hospice care.
While some voters said they liked the unit’s work, others were concerned about the effect the tax would have in concert with other tax issues on the ballot.
Nikki Leach, who owns a t-shirt shop in Mexico, said she understood why the center needed the money, but she didn’t think now was a good time to raise taxes. As a resident of Audrain County as well as a business owner, she will have to pay the tax twice, once for her home and once for her business.
The Audrain County clerk said the new tax means about $800,000 in revenue for the health unit. Because the unit will now be funded by the tax, state law requires the unit to start paying for things like insurance, facilities and benefit programs for its employees, something Audrain Medical Center covers for them currently.
The initiative passed by 59 percent, with 1,551 votes to 1,071.