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08-02-05 MR/DD board to seek levy in Mercer County

By Tim Cox

  Mercer County voters will be asked to pump $1.75 million annually into the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (MR/DD) program.

  MR/DD board members voted unanimously Monday to ask county commissioners to place a six-year property tax levy on the November ballot. The levy -- which will be between 2.3 and 2.5 mills -- would help recover some lost funding and put the program in a position to continue expanding to meet the needs of a growing clientele.
  County commissioners will have the final say whether a tax issue is placed on the ballot.
  The program has about 60 employees and serves 325 people with an array of different services.
  Board members discussed the issue for more than an hour at Monday's meeting. They talked about how much money to ask for and how long the tax issue should run.  Board members were offered three scenarios with millage ranging from just over 2 mills to nearly 2.5 mills. The lower levies would have allowed the program to address funding cuts but would not have offered enough money for future growth. Officials decided the difference between the three offerings would make little difference to voters and unanimously picked the most expensive option.
  A 2.5-mill levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $75 annually in new taxes. Currently, MR/DD has tax levies that combined equal 3.419 mills and generate about $2.4 million annually. The program also receives state and federal money but no general fund tax revenue.
  "This offers us the best plan to make the improvements we ought to make to the program," MR/DD Superintendent Mike Overman said.
  "We've been fiscally responsible ... to prolong this," board President Warren Menchhofer said, noting the program could have sought new money a few years ago. MR/DD staff members have not received any pay raises since January 2003, he noted.
  Board members also were buoyed by the fact that a renewal levy last year was approved with wide support from voters. More than 75 percent of voters favored the renewal of that levy.
  MR/DD officials know they must launch an aggressive information campaign to educate voters about the need for the new money. Agency officials want to replace $300,000 annually lost through the sunset of a Medicaid reimbursement program, want to fill three staff positions that have been left vacant and want money available to meet other staffing needs as they arise.
  "We've got to go out and push for it," board member Dawn Schlarman said.
  It also will be critical to get families served by the program to actively campaign for passage of the levy, officials said.
  Board members chose a six-year levy so if the levy is passed it would not come up for renewal at the same time as another operating levy. There was some discussion about seeking a continuing levy that would be permanent, but board members thought voters would be more likely to favor a tax issue they can periodically review at the ballot.
  The levy money also would be used to slowly add new positions to meet growing demand for some services. The money would give the agency a chance to replace some aging vehicles in its transportation fleet and replace some equipment such as computers and a fax machine.
  A summary of the levy request shows that about 26 percent of the money would be to offset passed losses and the costs of state mandates. The remaining 74 percent represents money that would be pumped into providing new services.
  The exact millage of the property tax levy will be determined by Mercer County Auditor Mark Giesige after commissioners approve the ballot issue.


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