Belleville won't put sales tax issue on ballot

News-DemocratMay 6, 2014 

The Belleville City Council voted on Monday not to place on the November ballot a referendum regarding a sales tax increase that aldermen approved last year.

The council voted 8-7 against Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden's proposal for an advisory referendum so city leaders will know how residents feel about paying an extra 0.25 percent in sales tax.

Hayden wanted the ballot question to ask if residents want to keep paying extra 0.25 percent in sales tax beyond the 2014-15 fiscal year.

The extra 0.25 percent increase in sales tax is set to expire at the end of 2017. Officials estimate the increase brings in about $1.2 million annually.

The city sales tax is $8.10 on a $100 purchase outside special business districts, where sales tax is higher. The tax does not apply to vehicle, prescription drugs or grocery purchases.

Council members debated the issue for more than 50 minutes before Ward 4 Alderman Kent Randle said the discussion likely wasn't going to change anyone's stance on the topic and asked for a vote.

City leaders were divided on whether the tax issue was important enough so the city should ask for public opinion via referendum or make a decision with information on hand, as voters elect public officials to do.

Ward 6 Alderman Bob White said Hayden's proposal is for an advisory referendum -- which is non-binding -- allowing the council to gauge public response and still make the ultimate decision based on information given to aldermen.

"I think there's certain things residents have a right to comment on and have a say," White said.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella said his concern is that voters will make a decision without making an effort to learn about the issue and officials' reasoning for why the city needs the extra 0.25 percent in taxes.

"Who wouldn't vote to do away with taxes?" Kinsella said.

Kinsella said that residents vote for elected officials to represent them. Officials are tasked with reviewing information, like the budget, and making the best decision on behalf of the public.

Residents who spoke at the start of the meeting asked aldermen to put aside their differences to do what is best for the city.

Some wanted city leaders to give them a say on the sales tax issue while others denounced the climate of "gotcha citizens" who choose to focus only on the negative issues in the city.

Hayden made a similar proposal in August. At the time, the majority of city leaders said the city needed the revenue for operations, to make up for a $600,000 shortfall when the state was lagging in income tax payments to the city.

City leaders initially proposed the wheel tax, which proved unpopular with residents, before enacting a sales tax increase until Dec. 31, 2013.

The council then voted in August to extend the sales tax increase until 2017, stating the extra revenue would put the city in a position to hire more officers if paired with a COPS grant.

Hayden said that since then, the city did not get the COPS grant, and should remove the sales tax increase because sales tax revenue might be down due to the higher tax.

Mayor Mark Eckert reiterated Monday night that the city needs the extra tax revenue for operations and any reductions mean layoffs.

Eckert also said the police chief's priority now is a new police station, not necessarily hiring more officers.

Still, the city will try to hire a new police officer and move an officer to the Crime-Free Housing program this fall depending on the budget, Eckert added.

Some aldermen, however, believe Eckert's suggestion deceives residents who believed the tax would go to hiring more cops, not pay for a police station.

"If we were a business, we'd be accused of bait and switch," Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult said.

Aldermen who wanted the issue on the ballot were Hayden, Hult, Randle, White, Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti, Ward 8 Alderman Joe Orlet and Alderwoman-at-Large Lillian Schneider.

Aldermen who didn't want the issue on the ballot were: Kinsella, Ward 1 Alderman Mike Heisler, Ward 2 Alderwoman Janet Schmidt, Ward 3 Alderman Gabby Rujawitz, Ward 4 Aldermen Jim Davidson and Johnnie Anthony, Ward 6 Alderman Paul Seibert and Ward 8 Alderman Jim Musgrove.

Ward 5 Alderman Phil Silsby was absent.

Also on Monday:

* The council approved, without debate, the mayor's recommendations for department heads, staff and members of aldermanic committees.

Randle abstained and Schneider voted "present."

Randle said after the meeting he had his reasons for abstaining on all matters related to appointments and declined to explain further.

Schneider said she had not made up her mind on the proposed appointments and voted "present," which is a vote to go with the majority of council.

* New rules governing the public participation section of public meetings went into effect Monday night. The rules include limiting public comments to three minutes per speaker, on subjects "reasonably related" to city matters or what is on the agenda for the meeting.

The rules also were established to improve civility at council meetings.

Shortly after the rules were announced, a Belleville resident used a racial slur in expressing his comments to the council. The resident said he was quoting someone else to relay an incident.

The mayor reminded the resident to be civil, respectful and decent and allowed the man to continue.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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