Edwardsville OKs new quarter-cent sales tax

News-DemocratMarch 27, 2014 

— A new sales tax will go into effect later this year in Edwardsville, and the police and fire departments will get new headquarters.

The Edwardsville city council approved a new quarter-cent home-rule sales tax during a special meeting Thursday night despite the protests of local business leaders and some council members who objected to the haste in which the issue was presented.

The quarter-cent tax will add approximately 2 1/2 cents to the cost of a $10 lunch, or 25 cents to a $100 purchase.

Edwardsville's current sales tax rate is 6.85 percent; this increases it to 7.1 percent.

The estimated $1.2 million brought in by the new tax will go to build a new police and fire station. A needs assessment by AAIC Inc. architects evaluated multiple options for a three-station system in Edwardsville, most of which center on keeping a fire and police presence downtown and a new 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 has stated his concerns about increasing response time from the Main Street station as construction has led east and west of the center of town. Welle said response times ideally should be four minutes; at SIUE it's more like 10 minutes, and 9 to 14 minutes at the warehouse district.

Constructed in 1965, the former city hall that now houses the police and fire departments has its original boiler and electrical system, leaking pipes that have had to be shut down, no information technology infrastructure, aging plumbing and other issues.

Among them, the fire department does not have sprinklers.

Some business owners and the Edwardsville-Glen Carbon Chamber of Commerce objected to the tax, saying it would hurt business in Edwardsville. Even opponents acknowledged the need for a new facility, but objected to the sales tax increase.

"Please do not interpret our opposition ... as being against the construction of the facilities," said Desiree Bennyhoff, director of the Chamber of Commerce. In fact, Bennyhoff said it seemed that planning for construction and money was "long overdue."

But she said she and her 300 member businesses objected to increasing the sales tax. "There is a sentiment within the business community that local governments rely too heavily on sales tax revenue for capital improvement," Bennyhoff said. "This is absolutely not an attack on the need for public safety. We support those needs, but (the Chamber) is charged ... to educate public bodies on the impact of legislation."

Bennyhoff asked the council to table the issue for further review, requesting measures to restrict future increases and a "more concrete" plan for the new facilities.

Other speakers included Kyle Anderson on behalf of the Greater Gateway Association of Realtors and local chiropractor Lois Ladd, both of whom opposed the tax.

"It's been a rough seven or eight years, and if you haven't noticed, there's a lot of empty spaces in Edwardsville," Ladd said. "This is just going to be one more thing that will close down businesses."

But Patton said this is the first time the city of Edwardsville has increased its sales taxes. "I don't see that as an over-reliance," he said. He pointed out that Alton and Fairview Heights have a 1-percent home-rule sales tax; Belleville has 0.75 percent and Collinsville 1.25 percent, while Edwardsville is proposing 0.25 percent.

The measure passed 5-2, with aldermen Art Risavy and Barbara Jurgen-Stamer voting no.

Risavy said he would prefer the city explore alternative methods of paying for the project, saying it was "unfair" to ask the businesses to pay for it by charging extra sales tax.

Stamer said she believes the council did not get enough time and information to consider the issue. "We need to vote ... with what I feel is not adequate information, and inadequate information given to the public," Stamer said. "We need to take more time and allow for public input."

But Alderman Tom Butts, chairman of the finance committee, said that the professional recommendation of AAIC two years ago was "not to put good money" into the old building. Right now, he said, they have an estimate that replacing the HVAC system alone in the old building would cost $600,000. "I don't think it's a good idea," he said.

Butts also said 0.25 percent was the smallest home-rule sales tax allowed by the state, while putting the same amount in property taxes would double the amount of property tax charged by the city.

"We watch your money very carefully," Butts said. "This is the minimum (tax) we can do." He also pointed out that the Dierbergs business district has a 1-percent sales tax, and seems to have no problem attracting business.

"I'm going to be voting for it because I think we need it," Butts said. "I don't want it to be on my watch that we didn't answer a call fast enough to SIUE or the Gateway Commerce Center."

Alderman Keith Short said he could speak freely because it is his last council meeting. He is resigning from the council effective March 31 because his recent engagement requires him to move to Jerseyville.

Short said the issue was brought to the council in "a shockingly short" period of time, but said he didn't believe the mayor was trying to shove it down anyone's throat -- it was "a calendar issue," he said.

Despite the haste, he said he supported it, with the knowledge that it should have been done a long time ago.

"I don't know a single person who doesn't think that is necessary," Short said. "As someone who has the luxury of no longer being a politician, this is truthfully the smartest way ... If you don't vote to ensure the safety of the residents, what are you going to vote for?"

Short said if the council decided to wait and explore alternate financing, it will get "kicked down the street" for three more years. "In the future, we as a city have to do a better job (of communicating)," he said.

Patton said it has been "the most difficult" week in his 10 months as mayor. "If this facility is not built in a timely way, and heaven forbid someone is inured ... and someone asks if we did everything we could do, I want to say, 'Yes, we did," even though the timing's bad," Patton said.

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

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