This is the second part of our exclusive interview with Greene County presiding commissioner Bob Dixon. Part One can be found by clicking this link.
OI: It’s well known that OTC and Missouri State receive the lowest levels of funding per student in the state. Southwest Missouri routinely gets the short end of the stick on education funding from the state. Is there anything you can do as a county commission to try and get more funding for the schools in our county?
Dixon: Well, we speak in concert with all of the other leaders and I think the local delegation is doing all they can from what I’ve seen. We’ve fought that battle for many years.
At one point, even forcing the community colleges to come up with another funding formula because the state does not appropriate by university or by college…they do on the four years, but they don’t on the community colleges…so we did force some change.
We speak in concert with other leaders. We do have our own legislative agenda that we’ve made available to legislators. We speak up for the community and the area and the county whenever we can.
OI: The county recently opened up the Transparency Portal. Transparency was one of your major campaign issues, using the stool theory, it was one of your legs on that stool.
Dixon: A three legged stool, yes.
OI: Is there more to be done?
Dixon: There’s always more to be done. We can always do better. A lot of time I use the phrase “constant quality improvement.”
I love the Transparency Portal because it was a major step.
To be very frank, I didn’t have much to do with it because it was being worked on from 2012 onward and the staff began to develop it over the last year. I just got to make the announcement and be the professional cheerleader for the great folks at the county who are doing the work.
OI: Would you say the drive for transparency that you campaigned on was already ingrained in the county staff when you got here?
Dixon: Oh absolutely.
The county has been leading the way, actually award winning functions that the county has done since they instituted Jack Stack’s Great Game of Business. It really started in 2010 but fully implemented in 2012 with open-book management, bringing the numbers out into a public meeting on a monthly basis and helping employees understand so they would know how to plan, how to forecast for their budget.
That was step one but the discussions about the transparency portal and putting things online really started way back then. It was just sort of a vision of “how do we get there?”
So multiple presiding commissioners have been in place but the program was always running in the background with the employees and office holders.
As we’ve gone out and shared it with folks and shown then how to use it and how to export the data into Excel, we’ve literally heard oohs and aahs out of the audience as they view the presentation because they’re looking at our checkbook right there.
It’s all there for people to see.
Back to your question, is there more? Yes. We’ll have improvements that we can make to it. We have a place for suggestions. We have other things that have bubbled up from office holders who said “can we do X, Y, or Z to make things easier for the public to find?”
I think accessibility and having a attitude that welcomes scrutiny is something we always have to be constantly reminding folks and constantly approving upon.
OI: Looking ahead to next year, many people don’t realize the county is responsible for covering the costs of elections. With the Presidential election next year, is the estimate still it will cost a million dollars for the election?
Dixon: Roughly, yes.
OI: How are you and the other commissioners preparing the county financially to take that extra hit next year?
Dixon: We’re budgeting for it. In fact, we’ve set aside some funds in this year’s budget, there’s a line item you can find.
We now have, by the way, I think it was last week the last five budgets on the budget page website so you can go back and look for it.
If it’s a municipal election, if they have an issue on a ballot, those municipalities or school districts or fire districts, do help to share some of the costs and the county gets reimbursed for that but for a Presidential election the county gets hit with a really great cost. So we plan for that in the budget.
OI: There’s been an increase in the last few years of sexual assault and domestic abuse in the area. If you look at the rates for Greene County, it’s higher than the state average, it’s also up 25% over the last ten years. Is there anything the county commission can do to help combat the rise of this in the county?
Dixon: Yes, and it’s multi-faceted.
I think part of that is we’re good at reporting and we encourage reporting. It’s not just the county, I want to say that. We have a lot of agencies and a lot of governmental organizations that collaborate: school district, Springfield police, the county, the universities.
The community partnership, the task force components there…we were at the underage drinking task force celebrating their 25th anniversary…addressing these things as we try to bring attention, that awareness communicates to the public you need to report something if something has happened.
So some of that is a positive that people feel comfortable enough and supported enough to report something. It also tells us that we need to be able to do more with either education, response, crime prevention, public awareness…what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
That’s a long community conversation that I think most people are engaged in now. If they’re not, they need to be.
This is sort of the same trajectory that we saw back twenty years ago when awareness started with child abuse and neglect and we saw the rates to go. We saw red flags, the community rallied and focused and now, there is a coordinated cross-agency collaboration that goes on for prevention.
It’s Child Abuse Prevention Month. To kick that off we were at the Art Museum. To see all the agencies and what they’re doing above and beyond their technical responsibility. It’s not just prevention, but help in healing to the community.
OI: I hate to come at you with a 1-2 punch, but I’m guessing your answer might be pretty much the same to this question. Looking at the poverty rate, Greene County is above the state average, although to be fair nowhere near as far above the state average as our neighboring counties. As a commission, would you approach combating poverty the same way in working with community groups?
Dixon: Uh huh. Just today I had lunch with Francine Pratt who runs Prosper Springfield and we were talking about that.
Our numbers, well, the numbers are never good enough on things like this but I am pleased to learn that the county poverty rate decreased last year. Some of that is the rising tide that does lift boats for everybody but the numbers in Springfield actually went down a little bit more and it’s partly because of groups like that and trying to come in and address the various components.
Again, cross-agency collaboration. A lot of what she does is bring in a lot of the parties together into one conversation.
A large part of our discussion was about the implementation of a 2015 expunger bill. There was no path to restoration in state law. We legislatively keep people from having a lot of jobs, so that was a real milestone for Missouri but it didn’t go far as it needed to and we knew it at the time.
It sealed their record if it were expunged as opposed to erasing it. It’s one felony a lifetime. With the unemployment rate as low as it is, and the need for skilled workers, one of the things we need to do is prepare people for work who might be barred from work for minor offenses that they may have committed 15 to 20 years ago.
That was one of the things they were working on. They did a workshop and it was packed. They did it in conjunction with the Springfield Bar Association.
There are certain jobs that any type of offense, because of the way legislators have enacted things, there are certain jobs they’re barred from doing like selling lottery tickets or selling alcohol if they’ve had a minor offense.
I would much rather have somebody making minimum wage and having a job and the dignity that comes with it and prepare themselves to take the next step and get a better job, than have them sitting there barred because of something that happened 15 or 20 years ago and collecting public welfare that could really be going to someone else.
We really need to change our whole mindset and [Pratt’s organization] is one that is really leading the way.
OI: Final question. There have to be things within the county you would like to see changed. If there’s one thing you could change that your fellow commissioners would say “yeah, ok”, what would you change?
Dixon: I don’t really have an answer to that. There are so many good things going on with the county that I haven’t really focused on that.
And the commission is very cohesive. We think independently, we all come from different backgrounds, and we all get along extremely well. Often times as we talk and collaborate we come to a similar decision.
I can’t think of…I can’t give you a specific thing there.
I will tell you this, let me answer this way.
I kind of pledged to myself that I would come in for the first 90 days and not do any major changes. Just try to learn and observe. For one thing, I needed to get to know 875 people’s first names. I still have not achieved that goal.
The pledge I made to the citizens, I keep it on my desk to remind myself what I said because there’s so much going on all the time. So much of it is inspiring the feeling of cooperation and unity among the employees and the office holders, the departments, because they are all autonomous, but you bring those people together to reach the next level in what we deliver to the citizens for the price that we do it.
One of the things I’ve thought about, kind of tied into Great Game of Government, is a report of what measurable goals did we achieve to increase customer service if you will, in whatever way we would feel we can measure that in each office, and where did we find savings for the taxpayer?
Probably that’s the only thing I’ve talked to the office holders about and mentioned in the Huddle. Kind of a visionary thing.
The biggest thing that is facing the county is the criminal justice system and that’s why I talked about that more than other things. If I could wave a wand and fix that, we would not have the number of people sitting in jail, we would not need the temporary jail, and we would see cases cleared a lot faster.
The problem is they’re not just cases from Greene County. Because people work here but they live in Polk County. Or they vacation here. Or they come in here and shop and get in a car wreck as they’re passing through. I once got called to jury duty on a case like that a few years ago.
So we’re dealing with everybody else’s stuff but we still want it to run efficiently. So if I could wave a wand, I’d do that, but I think we all want that!