Edwardsville eyes sales tax hike for new police, fire station

News-DemocratMarch 25, 2014 

— A $10 lunch could cost an extra couple of cents in a few months, if the Edwardsville City Council approves a proposed sales tax increase to pay for a new police and fire station.

The proposal would impose a 0.25 percent home-rule sales tax on goods and services within the city of Edwardsville. It is expected to raise approximately $1.2 million per year, which would be used to pay $12 million to $14 million in construction bonds for a new police and fire station and renovations for existing stations.

The proposal was offered at last week's City Council meeting, and will be discussed at a special meeting Thursday night.

Edwardsville's current sales tax rate is 6.85 percent. This would increase it to 7.1 percent. The police and fire departments for the city of Edwardsville both operate out of the public safety building on Main Street, with a satellite fire station on Montclair.

A needs assessment by AAIC Inc. architects showed options for a three-station system in Edwardsville, most of which center on keeping a fire and police presence downtown and a satellite location near Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the new warehouse district, both of which are the responsibility of the Edwardsville Fire Department. Costs range from $12.85 million to $14.95 million, according to the study.

Fire Chief Rick Welle said his concern is the increasing response time from the Main Street station as more and more construction has led east and west of the center of town. Welle said response times ideally should be four minutes, but at SIUE it's more like 10 minutes and 9-14 minutes at the warehouse district.

For Mayor Hal Patton, that's unacceptable. "To me that's horrifying, to know that it takes us that long to get there," he said. "If someone's in cardiac arrest at the Vadalabene Center (on campus), every moment is a critical moment."

Welle said the existing building is not only too far away from new growth and too small for their needs, but it's nearly 50 years old and showing its age. Constructed in 1965, the former city hall that now houses the police and fire departments has its original boiler with leaking pipes that have had to be shut down, an overtaxed electrical system, no information technology infrastructure and aging plumbing.

Ironically, the fire department does not have sprinklers. "These are things we expect of our developers putting in new buildings," Welle said. "We're not where we should be."

Among other difficulties: drive-through bays are not possible in the current location, and the fire trucks must pull out on Main Street, the busiest street in town, Welle said.

On the police side, response time is not as much of an issue because officers are responding from patrols rather than a fixed location, according to Police Chief Jay Keeven. But officers do not have any holding areas for booking, so if they have more than one individual brought in, a police officer must be present for each person waiting to be booked. The hallways and sallyport -- a single-bay garage for bringing in prisoners -- are not handicapped-accessible, and the parking lot is far too small for the officers' cars and visitor parking, Keeven said.

"Nobody likes the idea of a tax increase, but I think we have a nice community and good public safety personnel, and we would like to have the facilities to match the people," Keeven said.

In 1995, the city made an agreement with SIUE to set aside land for a fire station to allow quick access to the campus and the growing warehouse district. Most of the proposals include following through on that agreement, Welle said. "The (buildings) committee felt that three stations was the best option," he said. "Two stations just don't give the coverage that we need for response time."

Patton said they are considering moving the main headquarters to a Main Street property -- about four blocks south of the current headquarters -- that formerly housed the Madison County Shelter Care building and is currently owned by the county.

The new sales tax would cost approximately 2.5 cents more for a $10 lunch, and a $100 purchase would cost an additional 25 cents. A $12,000 purchase would cost an additional $30.

But that's a concern for Doug Elliott, manager of Elliott Jewelers. He recently sold a $35,000 item, which would have cost an extra $87.50 if the new tax was in place.

"It has an indirect effect on me by directly affecting the customer," Elliott said. "You can keep taxing forever ... but people will say enough is enough."

Some business owners are still considering their opinion, like Mary Burke, owner of Olive Oils and More. She said she's still doing research. "I do have some concerns, but I want to speak to some other people," she said. "It will impact us, but every community has a different tax rate. I don't know that it's a large jump."

That's key for Rich Howard-Willms, owner of Plowsharing Crafts on Main Street. He also owns stores in Kirkwood, Mo., and University City, Mo. -- there, he charges a sales tax of 9.6 percent. So Edwardsville rising to 7.1 percent is "not a big concern" for him.

"I recognize that the money will be put to good use," Howard-Willms said.

Patton pointed out that unlike property taxes, about 35 percent of Edwardsville's sales taxes come from non-residents.

"Most of us are uncomfortable with proceeding with a property tax," Patton said. "A sales tax is more palatable for us, since it is paid by anyone who visits the city, or occupies an apartment, or the students at SIUE ... If you have an emergency or accident while in Edwardsville, we provide those services to residents and nonresidents alike."

But the Edwardsville-Glen Carbon Chamber of Commerce made a public statement opposing the measure. Chamber director Desiree Bennyhoss could not be reached for comment.

"The Ed/Glen Chamber is not against the needs of the community to improve and expand its fire and police facilities, and we fully support the mayor's and council's efforts to provide essential services," read the statement. "However, we are opposed to the utilization of sales tax, over-reliance on implementing additional sales tax, and little opportunity for public dialogue prior to implementing something as important as a home rule sales tax."

Patton acknowledged that the process is moving quickly. The haste is that city officials only have a narrow window to give the state its required 90-day notice and begin collecting in July, with money to arrive in October. If they do not inform the state by April 1, they will have to wait until January to collect and next spring to begin receiving the money.

To make up for the speed, Patton said, he's been in contact with Chamber leaders and encourages them to come to the special meeting Thursday.

But Patton said he does not believe that the tax increase will hurt business in Edwardsville.

"I'm a business owner as well," Patton said. "I was at Dierbergs the other day, and they charge a 1 percent (business district) sales tax... But the parking lot was full. And this is a much smaller amount."

The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday in the council chambers in City Hall.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 618-239-2507.

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