'Political ambush' or 'compromise'? Eckert, Hayden spar day after sales tax narrowly passes council

News-DemocratAugust 6, 2013 

— A day after the Belleville City Council narrowly voted to keep a 0.25-percent sales tax increase, the mayor's political foe is calling the vote improper.

"What happened (Monday) night was a political ambush," Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said.

Hayden said he was ready to vote for extending the tax for two years and place the issue on the ballot as a nonbinding referendum.

Instead, Mayor Mark Eckert did not listen to residents and "reined in" votes from Eckert's Belleville Good Government Party to extend the tax increase for four years and remove the clause about letting voters decide on continuing the tax, Hayden said.

"That's how a party boss works," said Hayden, an independent who ran against Eckert for mayor in the April election.

Eckert said he did not orchestrate the majority vote and Hayden is only upset because he did not get his way.

"We compromised," Eckert said. "It is all reaching across the aisle as long as Joe Hayden gets to say how things work out."

The council voted 9-7 to keep the sales tax at $8.10 on a $100 purchase outside special business districts, where the tax is higher.

The tax increase was set to expire Dec. 31. The new expiration date is the end of 2017.

Hayden said he was naive in believing that he and Eckert had reached a compromise at the Finance Committee meeting a week ago.

Going into the committee meeting on July 29, Eckert wanted to make the tax increase permanent and Hayden wanted to do away with the tax.

Eckert argued that the tax was necessary if the city wanted to match a federal grant to hire four police officers, continue to build the city's reserves and pay for general operating expenses.

Hayden said he was not convinced the tax was necessary and to make cuts in the budget instead.

Eventually, the committee voted 5-2 on extending the tax increase until 2015 and having a referendum.

During the discussion, Eckert lobbied for a four-year extension but then agreed to two years.

The committee proposal seemed to satisfy independents who wanted to hire more police officers, but also address that city leaders told residents when the tax came with an expiration date when it was approved in 2011.

Eckert said two of the Finance Committee's members, Ward 1 Alderman Michael Heisler and Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt, were sick that night. These aldermen and others received calls from residents "misinformed" about the tax increase, Eckert said.

Eckert said some residents thought the city was increasing property taxes while others didn't believe the city's sales tax was lower than some metro-east cities.

This caused some aldermen to worry that if left to the voters, the tax would not pass and the city would be left with no money to pay new police hires, Eckert said.

Monday, Schmidt asked for the four-year clause and to remove the referendum option.

Schmidt said Tuesday she agrees with some Belleville Good Government aldermen that officials were elected to make tough decisions instead of going to the polls every time.

Hayden said Tuesday that Schmidt "totally abandoned" the platform set by the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville.

Earlier this year, Hayden and the coalition ran a campaign focused on crime being the number one issue in the city and hiring more police officers. They also focused on greater transparency in government and fiscal responsibility.

Hayden said he and other independents on the council support the Police Department, but decided to take a stand on being accountable for how the city spends tax money.

Schmidt said she ran with Hayden, but believes that, as an independent, she votes to do what's right for the city.

"I'm not a rubber stamp," Schmidt said.

Of the 16 council members, nine aldermen are part of Eckert's Belleville Good Government party; seven are self-identified independents.

Schmidt voted Monday with other Good Government candidates; Ward 8 Alderman Joe Orlet voted with the independents.

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

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