Better if sales tax sunsets

December 22, 2013 

St. Clair County wants a tax increase to upgrade its jail similar to Madison County. There are key differences, though: St. Clair County would add capacity to its jail while Madison County would not. St. Clair County proposes a broader-based 1/4-cent sales tax while Madison County's work would be funded with a property tax increase.

And unlike in Madison County, St. Clair County voters will not have to scramble to collect enough signatures to get to decide whether to proceed. The County Board is expected to vote Monday to put it on the ballot in March.

The case for St. Clair County's $37 million jail renovation is strong. The jail has been dangerously overcrowded for years, even more so now that county State's Attorney Brendan Kelly has stepped up arrests and prosecutions.

Kelly and Co. have put in place many alternative programs to help keep the jail population manageable. For instance, the offender accountability program lets some first-time nonviolent offenders pay restitution and perform community service to avoid criminal charges.

However, it's simply not enough to keep pace with law enforcement's needs. Reducing crime, especially in high-crime areas like East St. Louis, is key to our county's growth and economic success. So when the police round up 50 criminal suspects on a weekend, the county has to have the jail space to hold them.

This all seems like a no-brainer except for one crucial point: The 1/4-cent sales tax would not have a sunset clause. The tax would continue on to be used for other public safety needs after the jail renovations are paid.

We agree that public safety is a top priority, but taxes already collected should pay for ongoing operational costs. A 1/4-cent doesn't sound like much, but it would generate about $5.3 million in new taxes every year. And there is a cumulative effect. Sales taxes in some communities are inching up toward 10 percent now thanks to special assessments for business districts, MetroLink, metro-east parks, the levee repairs, etc.

We urge the County Board to insist on a sunset clause so the proposed tax is for the jail renovation only. An ongoing tax for public safety should be a separate question.

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