Belleville council OKs tax levy; homeowners will see tax increase

News-DemocratDecember 16, 2013 

— An owner of a $100,000 home will see property taxes increase by about $9 next year on the city's portion of the bill as a result of the Belleville City Council's vote Monday to approve the tax levy.

The council did not debate the tax levy. However, longer discourse over whether to approve a convenience store in a neighborhood by the MetroLink was followed with a heated discussion on the duties and office of the city clerk.

Aldermen voted 14-2 on a new tax levy of $8,097,137. The new levy is an increase of about 1.29 percent from the past levy of $7,993,668.

The levy increase will change the city's tax rate from $1.8958 to $1.9232 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti and Alderwoman-at-Large Lillian Schneider voted against the levy.

Finance Director Jamie Maitret said at a committee meeting last week that the city tries to keep the numbers as level as possible each year.

The city, however, is at the mercy of the actuary's assessment on how much the city should contribute to the police and fire pension funds, Maitret said.

The police pension fund saw a significant increase, which is caused by a variety of factors, including how investments perform, the number of retirees and the age of the current workforce, Maitret said.

In other news, the council voted to accept the state dissolving the Sales Tax TIF; approve $20,606 for Keel Engineering to do a storm-water separation project and $13,750 for Fournie Contracting to install rip-rap.

New convenience store

Council members were vocal about whether to approve a use variance at 528 N. Douglas Ave. so a Cahokia business owner could establish a convenience store in a single-family zoning district.

Aldermen voted 12-3-1 to allow Ehssan (Sammy) Hamdan, who operates a convenience store in Cahokia, to open a store at the vacant building.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella, Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult and Ward 8 Alderman Jim Musgrove voted no.

Schneider abstained after stating that she did not receive enough information about the issue to vote.

The aldermen of Ward 1, where the building stands, represented different views on the issue.

Ward 1 Alderman Mike Heisler said he was in favor of "free enterprise" and supported the business as long as the owners do not sell liquor. He would be opposed to the store getting a liquor license.

Kinsella said he visited Hamdan's store in Cahokia and found the store's lot to be littered with buckets, cans, milk crates and an overstuffed chair.

"I absolutely ask everybody to vote against it," Kinsella said. "I would not want this in my ward."

Hamdan said he was willing to work with Kinsella to address any issues.

"What you want, I'm willing to give," Hamdan said.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said he is giving the store owners a chance because city code enforcement will address many of Kinsella's concerns from the Cahokia store.

Ward 3 Alderman Gabby Rujawitz said an occupied building will be good for the area because it will bring more police patrol when officers stop to buy things from the store.

Hult, however, said there are opportunities to convert the building into a home, though it was formerly built and used as a convenience store.

"My home was once a grocery store," Hult said. She also said the store had "horrible problems" when it was open in the past, and Hamdan's store in Cahokia previously was cited for selling cigarettes to minors.

No residents spoke against the project at the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, and the board recommended that the council approve the use variance.

City clerk, aldermen concerns

In response to a News-Democrat article on the progress City Clerk Dallas Cook has made after being in office for eight months, Belleville resident Rose Wilson told the council that Cook allowing the public access to the city's "vault" is unacceptable for security reasons.

When Wilson directed a "Someone needs to grow up..." comment at Cook, Hult said Wilson was out of order. As Cook and Wilson responded to each other, Eckert pounded the gavel and the meeting continued.

Aldermen revived the issue later in the meeting when Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson asked Cook about the protocol on access to the vault and how the office processes Freedom of Information Act requests.

Davidson suggested Cook have citizens sign in and out.

Cook and Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert had several exchanges over the duties of the city clerk and the proper way to handle public requests.

At one point, Cook told Eckert: "Then maybe you should appoint yourself chief FOIA officer."

Cook also took the opportunity to tell Wilson that though she preaches civility at public meetings, her attacks are "not very kind."

Ward 6 Alderman Bob White suggested that Cook and Eckert meet to agree on rules regarding FOIA requests. Eckert said he and Cook have discussed the issue and City Attorney Garrett Hoerner will soon have written procedures to share with aldermen.

Hult spent the last part of the meeting asking Eckert and city staff for answers to more than 20 questions on topics including tax increment financing, the Meredith Home, the public pool and establishing a city court. She also wanted updates on the new credit card billing program, the comprehensive plan and drug-testing employees, among other issues.

The council and attendees laughed together when, at a pause during the back-and-forth between Cook and Eckert and the questions from Hult, Hayden said he wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas since it was the last council meeting of the year.

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

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