Belleville sales tax: It's your turn to weigh in

News-DemocratJuly 28, 2013 

— As arguments mount for and against the extension of a 0.25 percent sales tax increase in Belleville, city leaders say they're ready to hear from residents at a public hearing Monday.

The increase raised city sales sales tax from $7.85 to $8.10 on a $100 purchase, outside of special business districts, and brings in about $1.2 million per year.

The tax increase replaced the unpopular wheel tax, which required registered vehicle owners to pay $20 per vehicle and netted $500,000 for the city.

Aldermen will discuss a tax increase that went into effect Jan. 1, 2012 and expires Dec. 31.

The special Finance Committee meeting is set for 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers of City Hall, 101 S. Illinois St.

The City Council likely will vote on the extension Aug. 5.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden on Thursday sent Mayor Mark Eckert three pages worth of questions Hayden said are from residents.

On Sunday, Hayden said he appreciates that Eckert was willing to engage in a dialogue and responded before Monday's meeting.

Hayden's email spans multiple topics, including:

*What is the state of the city's finances? How much does the state owe? Has the city considered cutting programs and personnel?

* How much has the increase netted in total and how has the city spent the money?

* How are businesses affected by the increase and have any businesses closed as a result of the higher tax?

* Can the city just tax residents -- through a new line item on the sewer bill tagged "Cops on Streets" -- for the exact amount it needs to hire more cops?

*What if the city put the tax increase issue on the ballot in 2014?

Eckert has said he doesn't believe many residents are against the tax extension, as Hayden implies, and only one resident has called his office for more information.

Eckert indicated in a nine-page email response Saturday that Hayden is rehashing old arguments against the sales tax increase extension

Eckert believes that by making the increase permanent, the city could hire more police officers, and it's the fairest way of taxing residents.

The revenue from the increase could be paired with a federal COPS grant to hire and maintain four officers, Eckert said.

If residents want to approve the extension with another sunset clause, then the expiration should be set four years out so the city can keep the officers for the years required by the grant, Eckert said.

Eckert said that losing the tax increase would result in "drastic cuts" to the police and fire departments because the two entities make up 57 percent of the city's budget.

Residents believe Eckert cites cuts to public safety as a "scare tactic," Hayden said.

Here are some highlights from Eckert's email:

* The state continues to be late in income tax payments to the city, owing up to $1.7 million in some months in 2009 to $652,702 in recent months.

* The city has cut 30 positions through layoffs or attrition, though the city has hired some staff back.

* The city has trimmed $200,000 in electricity costs, $70,000 in telephone costs, $30,000 in copier costs and $10,000 in uniform costs.

* City expenses continue to grow because, for example, union contracts include raises and fuel costs are on the rise. The city had budgeted costly, but necessary, expenses such as a comprehensive plan update, and a new GIS system and GIS coordinator position.

* The city does not audit individual businesses unless they are required to report sales information through a development agreement. No businesses have reported closing because of the tax increase and shoppers have not turned away from Belleville because of the tax increase.

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

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