Outgoing Presiding Commissioner John Turner proud of his two terms
Outgoing Presiding County Commissioner John Turner has seen a lot of changes during his two terms, and the longtime Ozark County resident says he is proud of accomplishments during his eight years in office, in spite of a pandemic and a 1,200-year flood.
“I had big shoes to fill when I took office,” Turner said. “[Then-presiding] Commissioner Dave Morrison was well respected across the county and all over the state.”
Turner was elected as presiding county commissioner in 2014, as Morrison had announced his retirement and was not going to run again. Turner will have served two full terms when he completes his current term later this month.
He ran for reelection in the Aug. 2 Republican Primary Election but lost to fellow candidate Terry Newton, who will be sworn in as presiding commissioner on Dec. 30.
“My last commission meeting will be Dec. 27,” Turner said.
Turner said it has been rewarding getting to work on behalf of the citizens of Ozark County, but there’s been some challenges.
“When I first took office, the county didn’t have a lot of money,” Turner said. “It wasn’t because of anyone or anything that had happened. It’s just that Ozark County government is sustained by sales tax, and back then we had Town and Country, some convenience stores and of course the resorts and stuff, but that was before they built all of the [outlying] Dollar Generals, and we didn’t and still don’t have a Walmart or big retail store. We’re one of very few counties in Missouri that doesn’t have a Walmart and a stoplight in the county,” Turner said.
“So the county relies on sales tax, and I remember a few years we were wanting to paint the courthouse but we just didn’t have the money in the budget to do it,” Turner said.
With the addition of Dollar General stores around the county and a robust national economy during much of his term, the sales tax numbers grew, but he is quick to caution that the county services still ebb and flow on sales tax. “We still have some periods where the sales tax is flat,” Turner said. “You just learn to be frugal and save money where you can.”
Turner said he always took the job of spending the county’s money very seriously. In addition to the sales tax funding, the county has also received state and federal money, including funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following storm damage and flooding, and stimulus money surrounding the Covid-19 Pandemic.
“Well the federal government just decided to send the [Covid] relief funding to county commissioners to have them disperse it, which was probably a smart thing to do,” Turner said. “The bigger governments would have probably hired somebody to administer the funding and that would have cost no telling what,” Turner said.
Turner said he doesn’t like to take individual credit for improvements in the county, but he is proud to have worked with other county officials and state and federal officials to make several changes that he believes are positive.
“As funny as it sounds, my wife and I worked hard when we first took office to set up direct deposit for county employees and set a payday date monthly,” Turner said.
Turner was married to the late Phyllis Gaulding Turner, who died while serving as Ozark County Treasurer after a battle with cancer. Phyllis was appointed treasurer in 2008 following the death of then-treasurer David Ford. She was elected to that position in 2010 and served until her death in October 2019.
“She died just a few days before what would have been her 66th birthday,” Turner said.
Turner said he and Phyllis were “childhood sweethearts” who reconnected later in their lives. They were married in 2005, and they had the distinction of being one of the only presiding county commissioner/county treasurer husband and wife teams.
“Some people may have not liked it, but we tried to always do what was best for Ozark County,” Turner said.
In addition to their early work on payroll and budget matters, Turner also served on the South Central Ozarks Council of Governments (SCOCOG), where he worked with other officials on helping schools acquire FEMA funding to build storm shelters. “We were able to play a part in getting FEMA storm shelters at Dora, Bakersfield and Gainesville schools,” Turner said. “I’d still like to see Lutie get one.”
Turner has served as SCOCOG chairman, and most recently as secretary. “It’s a good organization and it does a lot for this part of the state,” Turner said.
He also has served on the Missouri Department of Transportation’s advisory committee, known as TAC (Transportation Advisory Committee).
Turner said he and former Western District Commissioner Greg Donley worked on projects like the Tecumseh curves and getting a turning lane on U.S. Highway 160 in front of the Gainesville School.
Turner was also a member of the Missouri Association of Counties and is a longtime member and former president of the Gainesville Lion’s Club. He was also a member of the Ozark County Chamber of Commerce.
Turner said he was proud to have helped get the Ozark County Food Pantry in its new building, and more recently, was instrumental in getting a road put in near the food pantry to take traffic off the shoulder of Highway 160.
Speaking of shoulders, Turner also worked with other state and local officials and Douglas County to advocate for installing shoulders along Highway 5 from Ava all the way to Gainesville.
As far as challenges, Turner said he’s faced two big ones during his tenure. First was the flood of 2017, that wiped out homes, businesses and bridges up and down the North Fork of the White River.
“That was a monster,” Turner said.
“We were able to get big roll-off dumpsters and we placed them at several different places along the river so folks could bring their debris and have a place to dispose of it,” Turner said.
He said the county also asked dozer and other heavy equipment operators for their help right after the flood. “We had people who were trapped by debris and couldn’t get out, so we asked anybody who had a dozer or a backhoe or something to come help us out … and they did,” Turner said. “We couldn’t wait on the state or federal officials for help.”
The other big challenge was when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.
“Just like everybody else we weren’t sure what the right thing to do was,” Turner said. “Do we close the courthouse? Do we make everybody wear masks?”
Turner said they never closed the courthouse, but he let individual officeholders decide on Covid policies for the most part. “Some of them had barriers up and some wore masks,” Turner said.
In relation to the pandemic, Turner and Gary Collins (Eastern District Commissioner) and Layne Nance (Western District Commissioner), administered federal relief funding to various organizations and groups in the county, including allocating a million dollars to White River Valley Electric Cooperative for a fiber-optic internet project that includes most of Ozark County. That project is still in the planning stages.
Early life, future
Turner was born in Mansfield in 1954, and his parents soon moved to Kansas City.
“We moved back here in 1965 or 66,” Turner said. He attended junior high school at Thornfield and graduated in 1972 at Gainesville High School.
Before entering county government, Turner worked for Zenith, Baxter Lab, Ray Grisham Trucking, and he also operated heavy equipment. He worked for Antler Pizza and Package Store, and he and his wife owned and operated the Antler Motel for 14 years.
“I’m 68 years old,” Turner said. “I’m not ready for the rocking chair just yet.”
Turner said he does have some plans for after he leaves his role as presiding commissioner, but he’s not ready to divulge those plans just yet.
“I’ve always liked to travel and fish and stuff, and I’m enjoying being a grandparent,” he said.
When asked about how he felt about the job he did as presiding commissioner, Turner said he felt like he could hold his head up high and be proud of the work he’s done. “I’m sure not everyone likes me but I always did what I thought was best for the people of the county,” he said.
“I’ve worked with some great folks, and we worked hard to be frugal and take care of what the people entrusted us with. I’ve worked with two different sheriffs and we’ve gotten along good … that doesn’t always happen,” Turner noted.
He said as a self-described conservative, he never asked for a new tax except a recent half-cent sales tax for law enforcement, which voters approved in November.
“I think the future looks good for Ozark County,” Turner said. “I’ve been working with Terry [Newton] to make his transition as easy as possible.”
Turner said he wanted to thank everyone who has worked and continues to work to better Ozark County. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said.