Editor's note: This is the third article in a 10-part series. Part four will publish May 29.
In the Boonville Police Department, the longest-tenured patrol officer has been there since December 2015.
Of the 16 patrol officers, only two have more than two years of experience, and everyone else has been there less than a year, Boonville Police Chief Bobby Welliver said.
“If they stay here two or three years, we’re happy,” he said.
After Boonville hires a new officer, it takes about three months of training before they go out on their own, Welliver said. If an officer leaves after six months, the department loses the training and equipment they invested without much in return.
“We get a few months of work out of them, and then off they go,” he said.
For most of Welliver’s 33 years the department has never had a problem hiring people, he said. Now, finding new recruits is a struggle. The department can’t fill its staff, so it never has the four officers on duty at a time that it’s supposed to, Welliver said. The biggest problem is that there just aren’t as many people getting into law enforcement as there used to be, he said.
The other problem is pay.
Bryan Schultz is the chief of police in Hallsville. For the last nine weeks, he’s also been the only full-time officer on duty, while filling in for the other full-time officer currently on paternity leave. That leaves Schultz to handle administrative tasks, writing tickets and responding to calls. It’s been hectic, he said.
“There’s no vacations for me, no taking my wife to dinner on a weekend,” he said. “I’ve gotta be back in uniform in a short period of time and respond to a call in the city.”
The difficulty smaller cities have maintaining their police departments illustrates a bigger issue for those communities. They are heavily reliant on sales taxes and must compete for retail dollars with Columbia’s big market and internet purchases.
Communities have struggled — many unsuccessfully — just to keep up with inflation.
Over the past nine months, GateHouse Media gathered statistics and conducted interviews about every aspect of life in eight counties of Central Missouri — Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph — and how things have changed over the past 20 to 50 years.
For cities, the story is similar whether they are large like Columbia or small like Boonville. Voters have been asked to approve higher sales taxes to compensate for a shrinking retail base.
Along with sales lost to the internet and larger communities, people also shop less than they used to, said Pat Curry, a University of Missouri economic development specialist.
In the 1980s, Missouri was one of the highest-income states in the U.S., but incomes in Missouri have been growing slower than the national average, he said. As costs like housing increase faster than income, people have less money to spend, he said.
“It used to be people would get in the car and go shop for fun, to spend a day out,” Curry said. “That just doesn’t happen with the frequency it used to.”
High turnover and short-staffing are systemic for small police departments around the U.S., but Schultz thinks it’s worse in the Midwest and southern United States. He retired from policing in California after 22 years, and he said the pay disparity between large and small departments is much larger in Missouri.
“When the tax base is low, departments can never get their foot up, and get solid, well-paid officers,” he said. “We’re just used as training grounds for larger departments.”
Smaller cities in mid-Missouri already have small tax bases relative to Columbia, and that gap has been widening for several communities. Taxable sales in Columbia have risen by over 20 percent over the last decade, while they’ve risen only 1.2 percent in Mexico, 5.1 percent in California, and have fallen 3 percent in Fayette, from $20.7 million in 2008 to $20.1 million in 2017.
When adjusted for inflation, sales are lower in Mexico, Fulton, Moberly, California and Fayette than they were in 2008.
Even Columbia’s sales tax revenue isn’t keeping up with its growing population. Per capita sales are down from 2014, falling from $19,832 to $19,439 in 2017.
There is also a shrinking pool of new officers graduating from training academies. Because of the shortage, officers can go where they get the best pay, Moberly Police Chief Troy Link said.
“It’s a competition to get them to even come to you to do an interview. It’s a competition to get them to accept your job,” Link said. “And it’s an ongoing competition to keep them. It all boils down to dollars.”
The Columbia Police Department pays for new recruits to go to an academy, so recruiting officers from other departments who have already been through an academy saves money, Sgt. Curtis Perkins wrote in an email. Along with the higher pay, there is more variety in the duties assigned to Columbia officers, from detectives to community outreach, he said.
The three largest departments in Boone County — Columbia, the Boone County Sheriff’s Department and the MU Police Department — all start officers at $42,000 or more. Most small towns can’t match that level of pay.
The starting salary in Boonville is $32,344 for a full-time officer. In Hallsville, it’s $28,000.
Moberly officers start at $32,490 and they’re not guaranteed a cost of living increase from the city. They didn’t get one last year, so Link gave officers a 1-percent raise after cutting two positions.
The Moberly Police Department budgets for 27 officers, with 16 patrol officers. The department has four vacancies, leaving only two officers each shift rather than the three officers Link wants to have on duty.
The 12 officers are spread thin answering calls, making it hard to find time to do proactive policing. Even things like writing reports take longer, slowing down the court process, Link said.
Turnover in Moberly isn’t as quick as in Boonville, but it’s become enough of an issue that Link asked the Moberly City Council to fit a pay raise and a housing stipend into the budget this year. Officers typically move on after two years, but some stay up to eight years, Link said.
“With more experience, you generally have officers who perform better in a lot of situations than if they’re brand new, straight out of the academy,” he said.
In Hallsville, Schultz has four part-time officers and one full-time officer aside from himself. Most of the part-time officers have different, full-time jobs and spotty availability, Schultz said. He needs more who can work weekends, and to reach his goal of a 24/7 department, he needs full-timers, he said.
“I need two more full-time guys who can work the graveyard positions, and then we’re going to be a lot more self-sustaining,” Schultz said. “But I think we’re a ways off from that.”
Hallsville is growing, giving officers more work to do. But it still has a small sales tax base, so the budget is staying the same, Schultz said.
It’s working toward putting a half-cent sales tax dedicated to public safety on the ballot, but first needs approval from the Missouri General Assembly, which it failed to get this session. The half-cent tax would amount to about $50,000 a year in revenue, enough to fund another officer or buy a patrol car for the Hallsville police, Schultz said. It could also let the city raise officer pay, which now starts at $13.50 an hour.
“That’s a big deal for a small town like this,” he said.
Trying to keep pay competitive is a universal struggle for small cities, especially as Missouri’s minimum wage starts to rise. Low pay causes high turnover and makes it difficult to recruit qualified police officers, and the same is true for other city employees.
Centralia used to have a four-person public works crew until one retired a few years ago. That position wasn’t filled, and the city hasn’t budgeted for it since, City Administrator Heather Russell said. With four people, the crew could split up and work on multiple projects. It’s hard for them to stay caught up with only three, she said.
Tight budgets have pushed cities to ask voters to pay higher sales tax rates to make up for the lower spending. Centralia voters approved a half-cent public safety sales tax in 2018.
The tax will let the city shift some of its police and fire costs out of the general fund, giving them room to budget another public works employee. That should help them keep up with fixing roads, Russell said.
Columbia once enjoyed substantial annual growth in revenues because of its position as the retail hub of the region. It remains the largest retail center between St. Louis and Kansas City but the growth has slowed as internet commerce grows at a rapid pace.
Online sales have more than doubled their share of all retail sales over the past decade. Nationwide, they accounted for over 10 percent of all retail sales in the first quarter of 2019, compared to less than 4 percent in the first quarter of 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s most recent e-commerce report.
That’s hurt municipalities, many of which have no way of collecting tax on those sales. The shift to online retail is a main factor behind declining sales tax revenues everywhere, said Missouri Municipal League Deputy Director Richard Sheets. Smaller municipalities are hit especially hard by online retail because they rely on small businesses for their tax base, he said.
“Their competitor now isn’t neighboring businesses, it’s the internet,” Sheets said.
Businesses popping up in smaller cities are usually specialty stores that don’t compete with big box stores, Sheets said. But coffee shops and restaurants don’t attract a lot of other business, or generate a lot of tax revenue compared to retail stores, he said.
The effect of online commerce is combining with the economic power of Columbia to strain the budgets of smaller communities. Boone County has added thousands of jobs in the last decade — including almost 1,000 retail jobs — while surrounding counties have lost employment.
In September, the federal Office of Management and Budget added Cooper County to the Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Area. That means 25 percent of Cooper County’s workforce commutes to Boone County for work.
Cooper County has lost nearly 800 manufacturing jobs in the past decade.
The loss of manufacturing jobs has two effects on retail sales — people have less money to spend and they’re having to look outside Cooper County for work, Curry said.
Commuters tend to spend money where they work, he said. That’s especially true when commuting to a retail hub like Columbia, which has more options than smaller towns, both for shopping and for services like health care.
Curry studies sales patterns and calculates whether counties are “leaking” — meaning they have less in retail sales than their population and income would suggest.
Leakage rates for Audrain, Callaway, Howard and Moniteau counties are higher than three-quarters of all Missouri counties, and Callaway is the eighth-highest. Callaway lost $146.8 million in sales to leakage in 2017, according to Curry’s figures, equal to almost half of the $311.9 million in actual taxable sales that year.
Columbia had $250.8 million more in taxable sales than expected, and it’s been above expectations in all of Curry’s calculations, going back to 2001.
The only county where taxable sales have grown faster than in Boone County over the past two decades is Cooper County. Taxable sales in Boonville jumped after the Isle of Capri casino opened in 2001, increasing from $75 million to $135 million.
Downtown Boonville has many of the same issues as other small towns, said Chamber of Commerce President Laura Wax. Small shops and restaurants fill much of the historic downtown, but many storefronts are vacant. Small businesses are starting in Boonville, but most of them are small, employing two or three people, Wax said.
Along with the casino, expansion has helped maintain Boonville’s tax base. It has annexed along Highway B and Ashley Road to Interstate 70, gathering in the I-70 gas stations and truck stops as well as commercial corridors that include restaurants, services and big-ticket retailers like Black Rifle and retail giant Walmart, all of which draw shoppers into Boonville.
“One of the things we know is that almost every place that has a Walmart is doing much better in sales than places that don’t,” Curry said.
Cut services or hike taxes
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair last summer opened the door for states and municipalities to force out-of-state retailers to collect use tax like businesses within the state collect sales tax.
Businesses that make out-of-state purchases are already paying use tax. Individuals are technically required to pay a use tax on out-of-state purchases, but they’re not required to report those purchases to the state unless they spent over $2,000 in a year, effectively giving them an exemption, he said.
“We can’t capture all of them because (the retailers) don’t have businesses here who we can go to and say, ‘You owe this tax,’” Sheets said.
It’s an issue of fairness for Missouri businesses, whose online competitors have a tax advantage. Their customers are buying from out of state instead of from their stores, and it affects local economies, Sheets said.
Closing businesses mean fewer jobs for the community. It also means there could be fewer services in town, giving people another reason to go to Columbia, he said.
A bill in the Missouri House of Representatives would have required out-of-state vendors to collect tax if they had 200 sales or at least $100,000 worth of sales in Missouri in a year. The bill did not pass before the end of the legislative session, so its supporters will have to try again next year, Sheets said.
As municipalities wait for Wayfair to be implemented, they’re also facing rising costs. Things like rising asphalt expenses can strain a city’s budget, and so can personnel.
In Centralia, the major rising costs are in payroll. The city has to keep its pay competitive with the rising minimum wage to attract and keep good employees, Russell said.
Boonville and Moberly are also looking at increasing pay for police officers and other city employees. But raising pay increases other costs, too, like retirement funds, said Boonville Assistant City Administrator Kate Fjell. And unlike capital purchases, salaries are a recurring cost, and they get larger every year due to cost-of-living increases.
The city has to make sure decisions like that are sustainable over time, Fjell said.
“I think that’s why we’ve been hesitant, because we want to feel good about that if we do it,” she said.
The two main ways municipalities are trying to keep up with declining sales tax revenues are raising their sales tax rates and cutting services, Sheets said.
Since 2000, voters have approved sales tax increases in each of the eight counties studied for these reports as well as new sales taxes within the largest community in every county.
“People don’t like taxes, that’s the bottom line, but we understand that’s how we pay for services,” Sheets said.
The tax increases haven’t been enough to avoid cuts in payroll and services. In Fayette, taxable sales have increased 32 percent since 2001, adding about $56,000 in revenue annually to the city budget. But when the totals are adjusted for inflation, sales are actually down.
When city administrator and clerk Robin Triplett started working for Fayette 30 years ago, it had 32 employees. It’s now down to 20. She started as the city clerk and would fill in as city administrator when there wasn’t one.
Now the roles are combined into one position. The city’s public works director also serves as the building inspector, Triplett said. The city has also cut down the street, sewer and police departments.
“Sometimes I will say that the public works director and I feel rather overloaded with projects, and we try to do the best we can with the staff we have and the money we have to do it,” she said.
Voters like earmarked taxes, with the money dedicated for a specific purpose such as parks or public safety. That cannot be used for general operations. That can help in one area of need but shortchange other services.
Payroll is the biggest expense for most cities. The largest single cost in Moberly’s general fund is the police payroll and sales tax is the largest single source of funding. That pot of money isn’t growing, so fitting in a pay raise is a challenge.
Moberly relies on its general fund and half-cent capital improvements sales tax to fund major purchases and projects. This year, it couldn’t fund all the capital improvement requests sought by departments and had to cut from the fire department.
At some point, the city is still going to have to replace its 1984 ladder truck and 2002 pumper truck, according to Moberly City Manager Brian Crane’s budget message.
Whether it’s with a dedicated public safety sales tax like Hallsville is seeking, or making room somewhere else in the budget, Boonville’s police chief Welliver said his city is going to have to address pay, and not just for his officers.
“I personally don’t think anybody in the city is getting paid enough money,” he said. “I don’t think our street workers are getting paid enough.”
Part I: While Boone County booms, neighbors struggle with change
Part I Extra: Westmoreland: A journey together into 'Rural Divide'
Part II: Effects of factory closures continue to linger
Part II Extra: Some cities face uphill battle in tech-driven economy
Part III: Mid-Missouri is ‘leaking’ sales tax revenue
Part IV: Small schools see challenges, rewards
Part IV Extra: Small town, big field of dreams
Part V: Rural areas have limited health care, lower life expectancy
Part VI: Communities struggling to maintain basic infrastructure
Part VI Extra: Rocheport bridge rehab could be 'poison pill'
Part VII: Fewer Mid-Missouri farmers are tending bigger farms
Part VIII: Poverty a 'hidden epidemic' in mid-Missouri
Part IX: Few alternatives to prison exist in Mid-Missouri