Belleville leaders to discuss extending sales tax increase

News-DemocratJuly 10, 2013 

— The city of Belleville could hire up to four new police officers if city leaders choose to extend a 0.25 percent sales tax increase, the mayor said.

The increase raised city sales tax from $7.85 to $8.10 on a $100 purchase, outside of special business districts, and netted the city $1.2 million last year.

The increase went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, and is set to expire Dec. 31. The City Council will vote in August on the extension.

Residents can give their opinion on the tax at a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. July 29. The hearing will be part of a special Finance Committee meeting in the City Council Chambers of City Hall, 101 S. Illinois St.

Mayor Mark Eckert said he would like to make the increase permanent. (*16*)

Others on the council believe any extension should have an expiration date.

Finance Director Jamie Maitret said that any sunset clause should be set four years out to guarantee the city will have money to satisfy conditions of a federal COPS grant.

Eckert said some revenue from the sales tax increase goes to general operations and reserves, but the bulk of it would be used to hire two police officers in 2014.

And, if paired with a federal COPS grant the city is applying for, the city could hire a total of four officers, Eckert said.

Eckert said he would not be comfortable accepting the COPS grant if city leaders did not extend the sales tax increase.

Police Chief Bill Clay said he likely will hear by October whether the city was awarded the COPS grant.

In the grant application, the city asked for four officers. The city has 82 sworn officers.

The federal grant would pay for about 50 percent of the cost for new officers over three years.

Maitret estimated the grant would pay about $500,000 for four officers. This means the city would have to contribute about $500,000 to match.

More importantly, the grant requires the city to keep the officers for a fourth year of service. Otherwise, the city would have to pay back the $500,000 grant.

According to Maitret, the cost of hiring a new police officer for the first year is about $79,668 for salary, pension and Medicare contributions, and health insurance. By the fourth year, such expenses for an officer could increase to $84,544.

The cost of training, weapons and vehicles would be additional expenses, Maitret said.

At a recent Finance Committee meeting, Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle asked Eckert and Maitret to explain how the city plans to first match the grant for three years and then retain the four officers after the grant runs out.

"Where will we find the money to replace the grant money?" Randle said.

Maitret said some expenses in the budget do not carry over from year to year. For example, the city spent $125,000 this year to replace trash cans and will have that amount of money for something else next year.

Also, Maitret said she budgeted conservatively for the current fiscal year. She did not count on the sales tax increase being extended, so if the extension is approved, the city would have an immediate $85,000 boost.

Eckert said that with proper planning, it is feasible to hire more police officers. He's counting on steady growth in sales tax revenue, some money from a growing video gambling industry and the $1.2 million from extending the 0.25 percent sales tax increase.

Maitret said so far, the city has received two monthly payments of $2,000 each gained from five establishments with video gaming. There are about 30 businesses that have applied for video gambling.

City leaders approved the sales tax increase in 2011 after outcry from the public about another proposal to raise money. The wheel tax required registered vehicle owners to pay $20 per vehicle and brought in about $500,000 to city coffers.

Proponents of the sales tax increase said it more evenly distributed the impact of higher taxes on residents and non-resident who shop in Belleville.

The sales tax also brought in more money than the wheel tax so the city could pay for operating expenses and replenish its reserves, which was depleted when the economy went sour, Maitret said.

Eckert said he initially proposed the wheel tax to make up for a one-time state income tax loss in 2009 that amounted to $751,000. The wheel tax made up some of the difference, but the city was also forced to cut staff and freeze wages.

Eckert said earlier this year, as he campaigned for re-election in April, that losing $1.2 million, about 5 percent of the city's proposed $26.7 million general fund budget, would mean more layoffs, including police staff.

Belleville residents contacted by the News-Democrat for a survey during the election said crime and city spending were among the top issues they cared about.

On Wednesday, some of these same residents said they did not like seeing their taxes go up though they support the hiring of more officers.

Resident Mary Shelton said she questions whether city leaders are frugal enough with taxpayer money.

"I wonder if they're spending the money they have wisely, then they might have money for policemen," Shelton said. "I just don't trust the officials anymore. They're padding their pockets while we're forking it out."

Resident Bill Schaaf said he thinks the city always needs more police, but perhaps there might be other places the city could cut before extending the tax increase.

"If it has to be, then it has to be," Schaaf said. "But I don't think (tax increment financing) money is used improperly and I don't know if that money could be shifted over to the police."

Maitret said TIF money pays for expenses like police vehicles and fire trucks, but cannot be used for salaries.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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