Elected to serve: Part of the job

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Elected to serve: Part of the job

This time of year, Rex Austin’s cell phone rings a lot. 

The Polk County Southern District commissioner, who is in his seventh year in office, said it’s common to hear from constituents who have concerns about county roads. 

“We’ve got school starting, plus we’ve had a lot of extra rain so the Johnson grass and ragweed is tall,” he said. “This is a bad time of year for blind corners right now.”

Austin is joined on the commission by Northern District commissioner Kyle Legan, who has served 11 years, and presiding commissioner Shannon Hancock, who is in his fifth year. 

Members of the commission serve four-year terms. Legan and Austin represent equally divided districts of the county, according to state law. 

Spending time talking with Polk Countians and inspecting roads on his own is a huge part of the job, Austin said. 

Shannon, Mike Parson, and Kyle Legan

Polk County Presiding Commissioner Shannon Hancock, left, shares a laugh with Gov. Mike Parson, center, and Polk County Northern Commissioner Kyle Legan at a December 2018 rural health summit.

“A lot of times, once we’re done here at these meetings, I may be out looking at roads,” he said. “Somebody will have a complaint, sometimes they have two or three complaints, and I’m absolutely going to be out there.”

The commission meets from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays. 

All three receive yearly salaries. Hancock earns $31,700, while Austin and Legan earn $29,700. 

However, Legan said, the job extends past normal work hours.  

“Any time you’ve got your cell phone with you, you’re on duty,” he said. “It’s a lot more hours than it shows.”

In addition to their roles in the courthouse, Austin and Legan have also taken on positions in other organizations as part of the job, they said. 

State law requires commissioners to “represent the county on the following regional councils which may encompass their county: Manpower planning; aging; health planning; law enforcement assistance; community action; countywide sewer districts; solid waste management; county planning and zoning; University of Missouri extension; future boards, commissions and councils relating to health, education or welfare of the citizens as established by executive or legislative action of the government of the United States or of the state …”

Legan said he represents Polk County on the District Ozarks Headwaters Recycling and Materials Management District board, which includes Polk, Dallas, Greene, Webster and Christian counties. 

Hancock represents Polk County on the Council of Local Elected Officials board, which oversees the Ozarks region of the Missouri Job Center.

The three are required by statute to be members of the Polk County Equalization Board, which works with taxpayers to resolve disagreements over property taxes. As part of that job, residents who dispute their property taxes, after talking with the assessor’s office, can appeal to the board, which hosts open meetings for appellants in July. 

In addition to working through those disagreements, the county also has disagreements of its own, all agreed.

“Our biggest challenge is lack of money,” Legan said. 

That makes public works projects increasingly more challenging, Austin said. The county is allocated a set amount of resources each year for road projects.

Rex Austin

In April 2018, Southern Commissioner Rex Austin views the work at hand at Flat Bridge. The bridge opened in May that year.  

“We’re getting the same amount of money every year to do the road work,” he said. “It’s just not working.”

Part of the problem is economics, Hancock said.

“You buy less with your dollar every year,” he said. 

Another part, Austin added, is the county’s growth. Commissioners are eagerly awaiting the results of the 2020 census, which they expect will show the need for more resources for Polk County. 

“I don’t think they know how much the county is growing,” he said, pointing out new neighborhoods and homes he’s seen across the county. “I know it’s growing. The fact that I was born and raised here and don’t know anybody in town anymore ought to tell you something. I’m a stranger in my own town.”

Both Legan and Hancock are also lifelong Polk Countians, they said. 

These issues with growth and funding are exacerbated by the expiration of several chipsealed roads across the county, they said. The roads were all put in at the same time, Austin said, and have now all hit the end of their lifespan together, stretching resources thin.

“Now, we’ve got to try to save the busiest traveled roads,” he said. “You’ve got to save those roads first before you can go back and rebuild these other ones. It can be hard for people to understand.”

Funding plays a role, Hancock said. 

“If we had the money, believe us, we’d do them all,” he said.

In addition to roads, there are a number of other responsibilities the commission has been given under the law, Hancock said. In fact, he said, they discover new responsibilities regularly. 

“There are things we don’t know about,” he said. 

For instance, he said, when three Bolivar R-1 school board members resigned in unison at an October 2016 board meeting, the task fell to the commission to appoint three new members.  

“They called and said that the laws say the county commission has got to appoint if there are three vacancies at once on the school board,” Hancock said. “I said, ‘That can’t be right, what does the commission have to do with the school board?’”

The next morning, he said he checked the law and found that the commission had been rightfully charged with the responsibility. 

“Who would have thought that?” he said. 

While the work can be demanding, it can also be rewarding, all agreed. Hancock said he sees seeking another term in his future. Legan is also leaning toward another run, while Austin said he’ll “have to give it some thought.”

Austin said he’s proud of the way the county is able to quickly allocate resources to work across the county.

Celebrating the million dollar bridge

Polk County commissioners celebrate the completion of a million dollar bridge replacement project at Flat Bridge southeast of Bolivar on East 470th Road. Pictured are, from left, Northern Commissioner Kyle Legan, Great River Engineering field inspector Lee Schofield, Presiding Commissioner Shannon Hancock, Missouri Department of Transportation’s Jim McDiarmid and Southern Commissioner Rex Austin.

“I enjoy coming to work,” he said. “Some days there’s donuts here. Some days there’s notes you don’t want to read. I feel like everybody should sit up here and find out actually what goes on.”

Legan said he’s been able to fulfill the mission he set out for himself when he was elected. 

“I said when I first came on here my goal was to treat people the way I’d want my family treated, and I still try to do that,” he said. 

For Hancock, helping people is also a bright spot. 

“My favorite part of the job is when somebody comes in and needs help and you can get it to them,” he said. 

This is part four of a multi-part series documenting the roles of local elected officials. Keep an eye out for additional installments in upcoming editions of the Bolivar Herald-Free Press. 

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