'This is wrong': Belleville council votes to extend sales tax increase for another four years

News-DemocratAugust 6, 2013 

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— The City Council on Monday voted 9-7 to extend a sales tax increase for another four years.

The 0.25-percent sales tax increase was set to expire Dec. 31 and now it will be extended to 2017. It keeps city sales tax at $8.10 on a $100 purchase outside special business districts, where sales tax is higher.

Proponents say the revenue from the tax extension, which brings in an additional $1.2 million per year, will allow the city to hire more police officers. These aldermen also grappled with making the tax extension permanent because they want to be able to pay for the officers long term.

Opponents of the tax say they agree that the city needs more police officers, but the bulk of the revenue from the tax will not go to public safety. These aldermen want city leaders to let the tax expire Dec. 31 as planned and then tax residents only for the amount necessary to hire more cops.

The measure the council approved Monday is different than the one proposed last week by the aldermanic Finance Committee.

The initial proposal was to extend the tax increase for two years and, in the meantime, place the issue as a nonbinding referendum on a ballot for voters to decide.

When the proposal came up Monday night, Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt first asked to make the tax increase permanent and then agreed to support having the tax increase expire in 2017.

Schmidt has been out sick and attended her first council meeting Monday in several weeks.

Schmidt, along with Mayor Mark Eckert and many of the aldermen who voted for the tax increase, believe that the city needs to be able to guarantee that funding is available to not only hire, but keep, new police officers.

"You can't play with peoples' lives," Eckert said, referring to having officers move to the city for a new job and then possibly having to fire them if the city doesn't have money to fund their positions.

Aldermen who supported the proposal that stemmed from the Finance Committee said they were disappointed at the turn of events at the council meeting Monday.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said he thought the council had placed aside politics to reach a bipartisan compromise.

Alderwoman-at-large Lillian Schneider said the tax was supposed to expire this year and extending it lets the public down.

"This is wrong," Schneider said. "The people aren't going to trust any of us."

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson said residents elected the aldermen to make tough decisions and the city can't have every difficult decision go towards a referendum.

"It takes money," Davidson said. "To say you are for public safety and then say you would vote against these cops... In my opinion, you're talking out of both sides of your mouth."

Aldermen who voted for the tax extension were: Ward 1 Aldermen Michael Heisler and Ken Kinsella, Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt, Ward 3 Alderman Gabby Rujawitz, Ward 4 Aldermen Johnnie Anthony and Jim Davidson, Ward 5 Alderman Phil Silsby, Ward 6 Alderman Paul Seibert and Ward 8 Alderman James Musgrove.

Aldermen who voted against the tax extension were: Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult, Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle, Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden, Ward 6 Alderman Bob White, Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti, Ward 8 Joe Orlet and Alderwoman-at-large Lillian Schneider.

Before the meeting, about 20 people protested the tax extension outside City Hall. The group consisted of about half Belleville residents and half residents from other metro-east cities, and were there with Americans for Prosperity, a national anti-tax political advocacy group.

And, about 15 cops and their relatives attended the meeting wearing shirts that said "Support More Belleville Police Officers." They said they weren't taking sides on the sales tax increase, but simply attended the meeting to support the hiring of more officers.

Belleville resident Michael Hagberg called the tax increase a "money grab." He said the city's share for a federal grant, about $400,000, to hire four police officers is a small portion of the more than $4 million the tax increase will generate in four years.

Finance Director Jamie Maitret, however, said the city will also use the money to pay for building up the city's reserves, which was depleted during the recession, and for general city services and salaries.

The tax replaced the unpopular wheel tax, which was proposed to make up for late state income tax revenue, which still lags about $600,000 behind, Mairet said.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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