Belleville's Finance Committee: Extend sales tax, then let voters decide

News-DemocratJuly 29, 2013 

— The city's Finance Committee voted 5-2 on Monday to extend a sales tax increase for two years and, before the increase expires, place the issue as a nonbinding referendum on the general election ballot.

The full City Council will vote Aug. 5 on the committee's recommendation.

If the council approves the proposal, then the issue will go before voters in November 2014 and the extension could last until Dec. 31, 2015.

The 0.25 percent sales tax increase is set to expire Dec. 31 this year. It raises city sales tax from $7.85 to $8.10 on a $100 purchase outside special business districts, where sales tax is higher.

The discussion at a public hearing on Monday centered on the city's desire to hire more police officers while listening to residents upset at the negative impact of more taxation.

Mayor Mark Eckert said revenue from the increase and a federal COPS grant would help the city hire four cops.

Eckert said he's willing to listen to those who don't want the tax to be permanent, but pushed for the sunset clause to be four years out so the city could guarantee keeping the officers for at least that time period.

Belleville resident Paul Brigman told city leaders he wanted voters to decide, just as they did on video gaming.

"I guarantee if you put it on the ballot, at least the people have the final say and the alderman won't have to take the credit or the blame," Brigman said before the meeting Monday.

Other residents complained that the tax increase is in addition to the city's sewer rate increase, higher real estate tax and a proposed crime-free housing ordinance fee.

Some aldermen said the sales tax, which netted $1.2 million last year, was meant to be temporary, as a way to make up for lower state income tax revenue in the recession, a loss of more than $1.7 million in 2009.

Other aldermen said they have not heard from residents upset about the tax increase, which only costs shoppers 25 cents more on a $100 purchase. They don't see residents spending more on gas to drive outside the city to shop.

Eckert said at the hearing that 10 residents spoke against extending the sales tax increase and three residents spoke for the extension -- a small sample size of the city's 44,000-plus population.

City leaders seemed to agree that the sales tax increase needed to be extended to hire more cops, but differed on how long the extension should be: Permanent, or extended for two years or four years?

Eckert said the tax increase "could be dropped" if the economy improves.

The tax increase was initially proposed in 2011 to replace the wheel tax to make up for lost state income tax payments. Belleville resident Rose Wilson said residents were more against the wheel tax, which charged $20 per vehicle.

Alderman-at-large Lillian Schneider surveyed Walmart and Target stores in other cities to see how their sales tax compares to Belleville's. The sales tax in some stores in Waterloo is 6.5 percent and in Fairview Heights, 8.35 percent.

Still, Finance Director Jamie Maitret said the city's sales subject to sales tax is up 1 percent in the past 16 months over the same period without the tax increase. She said total sales are up 4 percent.

And, Geri Boyer, of Belleville Main Street, said the group has not heard from Belleville businesses against the sales tax increase. She said owners of Seven, Ben's and Don Rodgers support using the extra tax revenue to improve public safety.

The committee came up with the proposal after the hearing, which lasted more than an hour. All aldermen, except for two, and more than 35 residents attended the hearing.

Those who voted "yes" were Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle, Ward 6 Alderman Paul Seibert, Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti, Ward 8 Alderman James Musgrove and Mayor Mark Eckert.

Those who voted "no" were Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson and Ward 5 Alderman Phil Silsby.

Two alderman on the committee, Mike Heisler of Ward 1 and Janet Schmidt of Ward 2, were absent.

To contact your alderman or other city leaders, visit the "City Officials Directory" page at www.belleville.net.

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

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