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For cities, online sales tax may come with a price

In recent years, St. Joseph and other Missouri cities have pushed for an online sales tax as retail activity shifts to the internet marketplace.

Those municipalities might finally get their wish in 2021. But legislation moving through the General Assembly contains one unanticipated caveat for these cities: a reduction in the franchise tax collected from cable television companies.

“Over the last six years, St. Joseph has actually seen a reduction in the cable franchise taxes that it receives,” said Bryan Carter, the interim city manager. “So the impact could be limited relative to what the impact would have been several years ago.”

Carter said St. Joseph’s cable franchise revenue has dropped from $763,000 to $693,000 in the last five years, a 9% reduction that reflects consumers abandoning cable TV in favor of streaming services that are not taxed in the same way. The city collected $334,812 in cable franchise taxes, also called fees, in the first six months of the 2021 fiscal year.

Rep. J. Eggleston sponsors one of Missouri’s online sales tax bills, commonly referred to as Wayfair legislation. His measure contains an amendment to eventually reduce the cable franchise tax to 2.5% in Missouri. That rate currently is set at 5%, the maximum allowed by Congress.

Eggleston said retail sales and cable fees are related in that new technology emerged that is not subject to the same rules. He called the reduction of the franchise tax a “good fit” that could save consumers on their cable bills. A Senate version of Eggleston’s bill also contains a provision to cut the cable franchise tax in half.

“The cable franchise fee portion was not part of the bill but does relate in that it is a leveling of the playing field,” said Eggleston, R-Maysville. “One service is taxed while a competing service is not. If you have more consistency, you have a more level playing field.”

A separate bill to limit cable franchise fees was heard in committee earlier this year, with city officials from Independence and St. Charles County expressing opposition because of an anticipated hit on revenue. In St. Joseph, Carter said he takes a more neutral stance and will have to see if the expected revenue gains from an online sales tax would outweigh what the city would lose from cutting cable franchise collections.

“We don’t know exactly what the impact of the online sales tax will be yet,” he said, “so it’s tough to say that it would immediately offset all of the losses from the cable franchise fee. I expect over time that it likely would.”

For years, cable companies have fought with regulators over franchise taxes that were established to compensate cities for the right of way needed to provide television and broadband services. In 2019, a divided Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of cable companies in one case that allowed more in-kind services to be included in the 5% cap, something cities wanted to avoid.

“Excessive fees and inappropriate regulations imposed by local governments deter broadband deployment and discourage investment in next-generation facilities and services,” Ajit Pai, the FCC chairman at the time, said in a statement.

There might be some good news for local governments. The city of Creve Coeur, near St. Louis, has filed a lawsuit seeking to impose a franchise tax on streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, much like previous lawsuits that aimed to get cellular phone companies to pay the same taxes as landline providers. Similar lawsuits seeking to tax streaming services were filed in Georgia and Indiana.

Eggleston’s bill contains language that would create a commission to examine what’s called right-of-way issue, including fees on streaming services, for future consideration. City officials like Carter will have to tune in to see how it all turns out.

“It is something that will be beneficial in the long run,” he said. “The way people spend their money certainly are changing. It would provide a chance to catch our tax system up with the changes in consumer spending patterns.”

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Leaders looking for solutions as drug overdoses spike

Local leaders are asking for help from the community to combat an increase in drug overdoses.

Buchanan County EMS officials reported they responded to 63 overdoses in the month of March alone. But Steve Groshong, EMS director of field operations, said they’ve been battling this issue for some time as cases have continued to rise.

“It’s been a lot. It’s the last month, actually, the last couple three months have been as high numbers as I’ve seen,” Groshong said.

As emergency crews have worked to respond to the overdoes, he said he has noticed the issue is everywhere.

“It’s not any particular part of town, it’s not any particular socio-economic group, it’s all over town,” he said. “It’s in really nice parts of town, it’s in the not-so-nice parts of town, it’s everywhere.”

Members of the St. Joseph City Council held a work session to discuss this issue last week. Leaders from rehabilitation centers, medical responders and support groups attended to try to come up with some solutions.

One of the ideas is to open a detox center. Mayor Bill McMurray said the city used to have one but funding ran out and it was closed.

“A detox center, I think, would be helpful based on what everyone has said, and funding, of course, is the big problem,” McMurray said.

Solutions for funding may be able to be found, but it also may require some community assistance.

“We can get some assistance from various sources, various partners in the community, perhaps even from the state. Because this is not unique to St. Joseph, I know there are people who are experiencing all kinds of problems all over the country, and this is something we all need to work together and help people,” McMurray said.

McMurray agreed with many of the ideas floated, one of which is a sales tax to fund a detox center. This is something he suggested could be placed on the August ballot for voters to decide.

The city of St. Joseph is currently working with local organizations, companies and health providers to figure out a plan for the detox center. A tax to fund the center is just one of the ideas that is being discussed.

Groshong said a detox center is a need.

“They definitely need one. It would be a blessing to the community,” Groshong said.

Some concerned citizens have teamed up with local organizations to spread awareness of the overdoses and get Narcan into the hands of people in the community. Aaron Armstrong has worked on education for people in the community, and this plan is something he supports.

“The thing that is done in the community that the taxpayers see is the good that’ll come from it and to benefit them,” Armstrong said. “I think that’s what we need to look at as a whole. But this detox center is a must, there are no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s got to be put here.”

Armstrong said his concern is the ease at which people can become addicted to drugs and how prevalent it may be in families without others even knowing.

“As a community, we need to stand together and come together. Somebody sees something they need to say something,” he said. “There are people dying on our streets. You know, we have a crisis going on right now. And we need to really focus on taking care of that, do what we got to do, get a detox center and let’s help in that way and then focus on other projects later on because families are losing their loved ones due to this. It’s a daily battle that we got to do.”

McMurray agreed the problem is one it will take the whole community to solve.

“My gosh, I know that mental illness and addiction can be managed, can be conquered. And it takes a ‘we’, it’s not the Lone Ranger that’s going to do it,” he said.

Groshong said people can help by getting rid of medications that are not being used so they don’t get into the wrong hands.

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20 years later, Branson Perry search continues

On April 11, 2001, then 20-year-old Branson Perry went to hang up jumper cables in a shed near his family’s home in Skidmore, Missouri. He was never seen again.

For the past 20 years, it’s been a nightmare for his family and friends trying to piece together what happened to Perry after he disappeared.

“Someone knows something ... I promised his dad and grandparents that I would never give up on finding Branson,” Gail McMurray, Perry’s aunt, said.

The two decades since Perry’s disappearance have included dead-end leads, numerous rumors and the death of his parents and grandparents, including the biggest advocate for his case, his mother, Becky Klino, who passed away in 2011. In spite of all of that, people who Klino placed in her trust, like Monica Caison, founder of the Community United Effort Center for Missing Children, continue to search for Perry.

“Law enforcement’s not giving up, I know the family’s not given up and I know we haven’t,” she said. “We just continue to try to keep his face out there in hopes that somebody will come forth with some good information that will lead actually to a recovery.”

Many investigators, family members, friends and members of the press have wondered what happened to Perry on that day in 2001. According to the Community United Effort group, on the day of his disappearance, he was with a family friend, who was helping him clean up the family’s home in anticipation of the return of his dad from the hospital. Perry never came back from an expected walk to a shed to return a pair of jumper cables. He left behind all of his belongings, including his van.

At the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office, the case remains open. Sheriff Randy Strong has said in past reports that he believes Perry’s disappearance was drug-related and foul play is suspected.

“There have been some really good detectives that have worked on it in the past. I know most of them from the highway patrol and different agencies that have come in and looked,” Strong said in a previous interview. “They’ve laid a really good foundation and I think they’re on target, and it’s up to us to pick up the ball and see if we can take it and finish.”

Throughout the years, the sheriff’s office has received leads law enforcement believed to be substantial. In 2003, 58-year-old Jack Wayne Rogers was suspected of kidnapping and murdering Perry after bragging about kidnapping and disposing of a man’s body in the Ozarks. He later said the story was fabricated. A tip in 2009 lead authorities to conduct a two-day excavation of land in nearby Quitman, Missouri, where they believed Perry’s body was buried. No remains were found.

Perry’s case continually rises back to the national spotlight with the recent advent of true-crime documentaries. It’s been discussed on podcasts like “Crimelines,” “They Will Kill,” and “Trace Evidence.” In 2019, it was featured in two installments of the Sundance Channel docu-series “No One Saw A Thing,” which focused on high-profile murders that happened in Skidmore.

Caison said that any reason for the case to be discussed again is a chance that someone may come forward to reveal what happened to Perry.

“I think a lot of people sit back and wait and hope that maybe it’s that one day (that the story will) grab the heart of somebody reading it or guilt them to make them make that phone call or tell what they know,” she said.

There have been small attempts at closure for the family, like Perry being listed as deceased in his mother’s obituary. Even though his burial plot remains empty, it is marked with a headstone bearing Perry’s name, purchased in 2012 by his stepfather Jim Klino.

Everyone involved in the investigation believes there’s someone out there who knows something. The hope is that someone will let his or her guard fall and finally come forward with the truth.

“I don’t know if there will ever be justice for Branson. With our organization, our number-one priority has always been to find him. All the rest is irrelevant,” Caison said. “We just want to bring him home and bring a resolution to a nightmare that his family has endured year after year after year.”

Anyone with information can anonymously contact the Community United Effort Center 24-hour tip line at 910-232-1687, Nodaway County Sheriff Randy Strong at 660-582-7451 or the Missouri State Highway Patrol at 800-877-3452.