Belleville OKs study for new cop shop; extends sales tax after hot debate

News-DemocratAugust 19, 2013 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert in a 2013 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com

— The Belleville City Council on Monday unanimously approved $96,247 to study options for a new City Hall and Police Department, while another vote to extend a sales tax increase to hire more cops was approved after some contention.

The St. Louis-based Lawrence Group will study the buildings that house City Hall, the Police Department and other locations to recommend whether the entities should renovate, move or build anew.

After a lengthy, heated debate, the council voted 10-6 to confirm a decision earlier this month to extend a 0.25-percent sales tax increase through 2017.

Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle voted against the tax extension Aug. 5 but changed his vote Monday night to support the extension. The vote early August was 9-7 to approve the extension beyond its Dec. 31 expiration date.

The tax increase would keep the city's sales tax at $8.10 on a $100 purchase, outside of special business districts. Before the tax was implemented January 2012, the city's sales tax was $7.85 on a $100 purchase.

The increase yielded $1.2 million last year.

All the aldermen support hiring more officers but the council is divided on the ordinance, which doesn't specify the revenue would be used to hire cops.

Other aldermen say the tax increase revenue makes up for shortfalls from the state and the ordinance must have leeway to allow the city to spend money on operations in case the economy tanks again.

Aldermen who voted against the tax demanded provisions in the ordinance to ensure the extra tax revenue would go directly to hiring at least four new police officers.

Before the vote on the tax extension, three aldermen proposed making five amendments to clarify how the city would spend the money. Most council members read the four-page proposal for the first time Monday night.

The council voted on and defeated four of the amendments, proposed by Ward 5 Aldermen Joseph Hayden, Ward 6 Alderman Bob White and Alderman At Large Lillian Schneider. A fifth amendment was dropped.

Ward 5 Alderman Phil Silsby said the aldermen who supported the 11th-hour amendments were misleading the public. "You are not the only ones who care about the community," he said.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said it's important to specify where the money is going because the tax was supposed to expire this year and the city needs to explain to the public why the extension is necessary.

"It was an empty promise, exactly like we're doing now," Hult said. "Our word two years ago was broken."

The first change proposed clarified that money from the tax extension will cover late payments from the state of Illinois and the salaries of new police officers. However, this was defeated with a 9-7 vote.

The second change proposed clarified the tax extension would directly match a federal COPS grant to hire four police officers. It was also defeated with a 10-6.

The third change proposed clarifies the city will use money from sales tax extension to hire at least four officers even if the city does not get the grant and six officers if the city gets the grant. It was defeated 10-6.

The fourth change -- to create an aldermanic committee that would review how the sales tax revenue is used -- was passed over by aldermen.

The fifth change proposed would allow voters to decide to extend sales tax increase past 2017 by referendum. It was defeated 9-7.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert described the proposed amendments as "last-minute tactics" to damage the reputation of city aldermen who vote in favor of the tax extension.

"You can't give them just one bullet," Eckert said. "You have to be able to fund the full package" when hiring new officers.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella said he's concerned with earmarking funds generated by the sales tax increase just for the Police Department because it would limit what future aldermen could do with the money if the needs of the city change.

Monday's council meeting also included an informational hearing on a Justice Assistance Grant the city is applying for from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant would help the Police Department replace aging mobile data terminals.

In other news, the council approved:

* Spending $84,942 to the Gonzales Company to do a drainage study at The Orchards. The firm would look into alleviating flooding during heavy rains at the subdivision and neighboring Orchards Lake.

* Support to low bidders in three projects awarded by the Illinois Department of Transportation: Roadwork on McClintock Avenue and two projects to expand the Signal Hill and West Belleville bike trails.

City Engineer Tim Gregowicz said construction for all three projects are expected to start in September.

Reporter Jamie Forsythe contributed information to this article. Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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