Groups vie to support, defeat jail sales tax referendum

News-DemocratMarch 13, 2014 

A proposal for a new sales tax to fund expanding the St. Clair County Jail has spurred opposing groups lobbying for your vote.

A newly formed political committee named Citizens for Public Safety has sent mailers asking voters to support the referendum while the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national anti-tax group, has "zeroed in" on St. Clair County and is helping local residents attempting to defeat the referendum.

The referendum is asking voters whether a quarter of 1 percent (0.25) sales tax should be levied upon goods purchased in the county. County leaders say the tax revenue would solely be used to fund a $37 million expansion of the county's overcrowded jail and, subsequent, increased cost of operations.

The Citizens for Public Safety was created Feb. 24 under the leadership of Kevin Kaufhold, an attorney in Belleville, and Roger Richards, a Lebanon resident and former director of the Southwestern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission. The group has sent out mailings urging residents to vote in favor of the referendum.

The mailers prominently focus on inmates released on Thursdays through the so-called Cop Out program -- telling readers "Better in our house than yours!" The county's state's attorney, public defender and members of the judiciary approve releasing the inmates, who have been convicted of mostly low level traffic offenses, according to State's Attorney Brendan Kelly.

"But there are some folks with offenses, like DUI offenders and individuals with misdemeanor offenses who we know they are higher risk that could be your violent crime waiting to happen, that fall in that category ...," Kelly said. "I'd like to have some of those folks kept from walking right out the door, but it's a choice of prevention or keeping a murderer off the street. It's a difficult choice but we have to go with the person more clearly higher risk."

County Board member Ed Cockrell, of New Athens, said the mailings are a scare tactic and the county has had the inmate release program for years. Cockrell opposes the referendum in the belief there is not "full disclosure" where the money will be spent.

Richards, the chairman of the committee which sent the mailings, said he supports the referendum because his 30-plus years in law enforcement have given him firsthand knowledge of the jail's condition. Richard also served as police chief in Fairview Heights and on a host of law enforcement boards and commissions.

"I'm in favor of it because it is desperately needed," Richards said. "We're hoping to bring awareness to this issue, and it's also not something going to be added to our real estate taxes. ... I don't know that this is an end-all solution for the county problem but it certainly will make things a lot better."

The committee's complete financial reporting will not be available until after voters head to the polls Tuesday, but donations of $1,000 or more are now public. The most generous contributor to the committee is the election committee of St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern, which donated $20,000. The only other contributor of $1,000 or more was the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union Local 101.

Kern said he and other donors believe the proposed sales tax is the most fiscally responsible way to expand the jail.

"We believe this is the right way to do this project. There is broad-based support in the community for the referendum. Our internal polling and those going door-to-door shows people do support this," Kern said. "They understand the need. This is an old jail and it is way overcapacity. If we are going to solve a lot of the crime issues out there, we need an adequate facility. This is not a 'Cadillac' facility. This is a heavily cost engineered facility to be able to provide what we need for the lowest cost for taxpayers."

Proponents have not sold a group of residents based in O'Fallon on the need for a sales tax increase. With the organizational help of political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, local volunteers are manning a phone bank to call and ask St. Clair County residents to vote against the referendum.

One of the group's leaders, Tempie Lyons, of O'Fallon, said she opposes the referendum because the county has not adequately explained how the tax revenue will be spent and why the county cannot use its significant savings to pay for the expansion. The county had more than $171 million in investments in February, according to a county treasurer report.

"I would likely vote for it if given a good enough explanation and they had been prudent with tax money given prior to this," Lyons said. "They also need to explain why they need a new tax instead of using money already on hand. I'm not against having a good jail but I'm against having it without an explanation. ... They just don't exercise prudence in how they are spending our tax money. At some point that extra taxation has to come to a halt because we are killing our taxpaying citizens with taxes."

Americans for Prosperity, funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, describes itself as a nonprofit aimed at helping residents push for lower taxes and limited government. The state chapter is currently helping residents fight tax proposals in 57 counties in Illinois, according to Kent Strang -- grassroots and programs director with the state chapter. Strang is also a resident of O'Fallon.

"St. Clair County residents are already struggling with an increased tax burden. Our politicians must seek cost effective solutions to our problems without continually always asking families for more of their hard earned dollars," Strang said. "Taxpayers across the state of Illinois are facing 117 local tax increases next week. It's no wonder people continue to flee our state. We have little trust in our elected officials to make good decisions with our tax dollars and to keep their promises."

County Administrator Dan Maher said the county has consistently reduced property taxes for the past 30 years and up to 15 percent of revenue raised by the sales tax will stem from those living outside St. Clair County.

"We can't increase a sales tax without the permission of the public. We could have increased property taxes but we haven't. We've lowered them. I think we've been pretty responsible to the taxpayers but the fact is the jail has gotten to be 45 years old and the number of prisoners occupying the jail have increased faster than the old jail could accommodate," Maher said.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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