By James Smith
The Fireside Guard
MEXICO—It was a night of fellowship and policy at the annual Audrain County Legislative Banquet, Jan. 2, at the Mexico Knights of Columbus Hall, where state and county officials shared updates and predictions for the new year.
On the agenda, wastewater regulations, the impending Real ID law, and health care were among the topics the various county officials discussed.
Those presenting included, Rep. Ken Haden, District 43, Western Audrain County Commissioner Tracey Graham, Eastern Audrain County Commissioner Alan Winders, Presiding Commissioner Steve Hobbs, Audrain County Sheriff Matt Oller, Audrain County Prosecutor Jacob Shellabarger, Recorder of Deeds Janis Deimeke, Audrain County Assessor Missy Maupin, Audrain County Collector Kate Becker, and Audrain County Treasurer Patty Myer.
For many, the most riveting speech seemed to be Hobbs’ discussion of SSM-Mexico, formerly known as Audrain Medical Center. Hobbs announced that exclusive merger discussions between SSM and the University Hospital System were over and it was time for county residents to make their voices heard if they wanted to keep their hospital.
“Their negotiations have been suspended,” he said of the dialogue between the two hospitals. “The drama of the last 18 months is over.”
Hobbs said there is a group of City of Mexico and Audrain County officials who had pushed for the negotiations to occur.
“Unfortunately, due to the structure of the negotiations, we were not included, and we were not comfortable not being included in the discussion,” he added.
Such teamwork and local effort, Hobbs told those in attendance, was why in 1918, Audrain county was the first county in the state to have Missouri’s first county hospital.
“We need that effort again,” Hobbs said. “Even though the population of Audrain County is going up, the traffic going through our hospital is declining.”
Hobbs asked the audience to consider using SSM first before taking their health care needs to Columbia, to ensure that Audrain County continues to have its own hospital.
“If you are not using that hospital, you’re not supporting those nurses and doctors you go to church with,” Hobbs said. “You are telling the world you don’t merit your own local hospital.”
A local “use tax” was also something Hobbs and Becker discussed with attendees.
“You are seeing new businesses opening in Mexico, in the county, but our sales tax collection is flat,” Becker said.
Hobbs said the state collects sales tax, called a “use tax” when dealing with internet sales, but municipalities must pass their own law to receive the revenue the state collects from internet transactions based in their cities and counties.
“I understand internet shopping can equal selection and convenience,” he said. “But you’re not supporting your local businesses, and they are the ones who donate, the ones who help fund your little-league teams and your community fund-raisers.”
For his part, Haden warned the audience they needed to pay close attention to what was happening with the Grain Belt decision.
“It’s a condemnation of rural property,” Haden said. “We all need to rally on this. For rural residents, it’s an important and dangerous issue.”
He also warned the audience to pay attention to what happens with the proposed Clean Missouri Law.
“It is a case of unintended consequences,” he said. “We’re all for reducing the influence of lobbyists in government.”
The problem, Haden said, is it also mandates redistricting for state legislative districts.
“If it passes, there will be three major losers, agricultural interests, rural residents and black voters in St. Louis and Kansas City. If this passes, I’m convinced we will be a state represented by Blue Springs and St. Charles. That is the reason people voted for the Clean Missouri Act.”
Another aspect of Jefferson City, Haden asked the audience to pay attention to, was the movement to get things on the state ballot through an initiative petition, as with the state’s medicinal marijuana law.
“You’re likely to see another one soon, possibly as soon as May for recreational marijuana,” he said. “Don’t blame me; I’m innocent!”
Graham discussed improvements made on the small bridges on the county’s rural routes and smaller paved roads, the “letter routes,” funded by the county’s small-structures tax. That includes 45 bridges replaced since the tax was enacted in 2017. He said the tax has raised over $600,000 for the repair of small bridges and related structures in Audrain County, “and is a great opportunity for citizens to fund the enhancement of the transportation infrastructure in Audrain County.”
Winders also complimented the small structures’ tax, calling it a great way to “strengthen the county’s partnership with the special roads district.”
Both also said passing an internet sales tax would also benefit the county.
Winders spent most of his time at the podium discussing the challenges faced by various Audrain County municipalities because of regulatory action by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Between the EPA and the DNR, we have a bureaucracy that is writing its own rules and collecting its fees, answering to nobody. I have asked how making a town like Benton City spend $8 million is going to help the environment? I have not yet received that answer.”
Winders said municipalities are facing the possibility of bills between $6 million and $26 million to comply with DNR and EPA wastewater regulations.
All three commissioners encouraged the audience to participate in the U.S. Census, as well as encourage their friends too.
“It is how we get more of our money from the state and federal government, returned to Audrain County,” Winders added.