Eckert: Residents, business owners back tax extension

News-DemocratAugust 12, 2013 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert.

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— The city's effort to extend the 0.25-percent sales tax increase will face another council vote next Monday that is largely seen as a formality.

Last week, the City Council voted 9-7 on a motion to approve the tax extension through 2017. This upcoming Monday, the council will vote on an ordinance outlining details of the tax extension.

If the council approves the ordinance on Monday, the sales tax in Belleville will remain at $8.10 on a $100 purchase outside special business districts, where the tax is higher. Before January 2012, the tax was $7.85 on a $100 purchase.

Still, Mayor Mark Eckert sent out a letter on the topic Friday, saying he wanted to clear up "misinformation" over the tax extension before the Monday vote.

"After the July 29, 2013, Special Finance meeting, I got feedback from many residents and business owners," Eckert stated. "The majority of these citizens said the 0.25 percent sales tax has not hurt them or their business, and they would prefer to extend the tax in order to hire more police officers."

The letter reiterated points Eckert has shared at public meetings:

* The tax is not a new tax. It's a continuation of a tax increase that went in effect January 2012.

*The increase means the city gets an extra 25 cents for every $100 spent on nonessential goods. The tax is not collected on groceries, prescription drugs, gas or auto sales.

* Both Belleville residents and nonresidents are taxed for using city services.

Eckert said the ordinance going before council on Monday is merely the next step in a procedure to get the tax increase extension sent to the state for approval.

Eckert has said it's not uncommon for the city attorney to wait for the outcome of the council vote on a motion before drafting the ordinance.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden, however, has said that Eckert had the city attorney wait to draft an ordinance because Eckert knew the proposal would change from what was recommended by the Finance Committee.

On July 29, the Finance Committee voted 5-2 to recommend extending the tax for two years and placing the issue on the ballot as a nonbinding referendum.

When the proposal got to the council on Aug. 5, aldermen voted 9-7 to extend the tax increase for four years and remove the clause about letting voters decide on continuing the tax.

Ward 6 Alderman Paul Seibert, a member of the Finance Committee, said he voted for the initial committee proposal to extend the tax for two years. But he changed his vote to support the four-year clause after he thought about how it would impact the hiring of new police officers.

The city is applying for a federal grant that would partially pay for the officers for four years, but the city needs to have money to match the grant for all four years, Seibert said.

Then, the city has to have money in reserves to pay the full amount for the officers beyond the grant, Seibert added.

"If you explain it to people, sit them down and explain it to them, they understand," Seibert said of residents who contacted him about the tax increase extension. "Nobody said it was too much or too little. They went along with it and said it was fine."

Some aldermen view Monday as an opportunity to craft an ordinance that would specify where the city will divert revenue from the tax extension, which brought in $1.2 million last year.

In an emailed response to Eckert's letter, Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said the ordinance should state that part of the sales tax revenue will be used to pay for the hiring of four police officers.

The ordinance should state that the city will commit a minimum of $400,000 to the Police Department, Hult stated in the Friday email.

Hult said city officials should set aside money from the tax revenue so the city can pay for these officers when the tax increase expires in four years.

"If in four years the tax would actually sunset, then we would have these hires and we would have to create money somewhere else or we could plan ahead now," Hult said Monday.

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

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