Editor’s note: On April 4, St. Clair County voters will decide whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase for school facilities and whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase for public safety. This is the fourth story in a series of five. Coming next: A look at the history of the sales tax referendums and other taxes in the area.
When St. Clair County Sheriff’s Deputy Sean McPeak begins a shift, the K-9 officer is wearing about 35 pounds of gear. He checks to see if there are any calls he has to respond to at the start of his 4:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. patrol.
During a round of business checks, McPeak finds two businesses with doors unlocked. He does a quick walk through to make sure nothing suspicious is taking place and then locks the door from the inside before leaving.
At one point McPeak gets a call for a disturbance in State Park Place where he takes a report of a dirt bike being stolen, but was eventually recovered. He then drives for 15 to 20 minutes, most of which was south on Interstate 255 to take a report on a missing teenager who most likely ran away.
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Later in the shift he’ll have to deliver four no-contact orders to people with addresses in East St. Louis.
“Some don’t care, some are really (angry), some try to refuse to take the order,” McPeak said.
In two years he’s put 62,000 miles on his squad car, which had 45,000 miles when he got it.
During a recent shift, there were only four deputies and two supervisors covering the unincorporated areas of the county.
McPeak said having more power would help the sheriff’s office work more efficiently.
“Not having to drive sometimes from State Park all the way out to St. Libory, or Marissa or New Athens with four deputies on the street, we are literally limited to the amount we could do at one time,” McPeak said. “Traffic stops are down because we don’t have the manpower to do them.”
Part 1: How much would the proposed sales tax increases cost you?
Sometimes traffic stops can lead to arrests for people having drugs in their car, McPeak said.
“We just don’t have the people to do it,” McPeak said.
If a majority of voters say yes to a proposed 1 percent sales tax to bolster public safety in St. Clair County on April 4, the sheriff’s department will be able to hire more deputies.
The proposed 1 percent sales tax on general merchandise would generate an estimated $22 million a year, and $5.6 million is allocated for additional sheriff department personnel. The sales tax would be in place for 12 years if approved. The sales tax would not apply to groceries, medication or titled vehicles.
The sheriff’s department is looking to add personnel to its department, in addition to a jail expansion and renovation.
McPeak said in 2016, every single one of his paychecks had overtime pay, in addition to the 80 hours he works per two-week period.
At least a couple times every two weeks, he works overtime.
“And that’s just the stuff that I take, I don’t have to take the overtime,” McPeak said. “Sometimes it’s offered and nobody takes it and we run short. We don’t have a mandate per se, but the sheriff wants a minimum four guys out there just for safety purposes.”
Sometimes officers might not want the overtime because they just need the break from the job.
“This job is very taxing on you mentally and physically as well. The average person, they don’t need the police. The average citizen has never had to call the police, they’ve never interacted with a police officer, except when they’re passing them, or saying ‘hi, thank you for service.’” McPeak said. “The calls we get, we’re going (to) everyone’s problems all the time. Some of the calls you see whether the victims are children, or domestic battery, homicide, just to say the least, some of those, they could really wear on you mentally. They really can ... become really stressful situations and we’re putting ourselves in them constantly day in and day out.”
Currently there are at most four deputies patrolling the unincorporated areas of the county. Sheriff Rick Watson said he would want to have eight deputies on the road at a time if the referendum passes.
Watson said the sheriff’s office would probably go to six to eight squad cars on the road at a time.
If you stop a car out in Englemann Township, it’s got four thugs in it, and you’re only one guy in a car, that’s not a good sign, because there’s nobody there around to help you.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson
Some of those deputies would be in two-man squad cars in rural areas of the county in the evening, where other police departments would be too far away from being able to assist in a call.
“If you stop a car out in Englemann Township, it’s got four thugs in it, and you’re only one guy in a car, that’s not a good sign, because there’s nobody there around to help you,” Watson said.
Watson also would use the sales tax money to create a street crimes unit and enhance the county’s drug unit.
“Drugs are more and more prevalent all the time,” Watson said. “No other police department in St. Clair County has a dedicated drug unit. We take care of the drug problems throughout the county. (Are) drugs on the rise, or are drugs on the decrease? It’s obvious they’re on the rise. Drugs and crime go together.”
Watson said having a street crimes unit would go hand-in-hand with the drug unit.
Part 2: Here’s how schools would use money from proposed sales tax hikes
“If I’m looking at a map, and I’m seeing there are robberies and burglaries, in an area, I could tell you the drug house is right in the middle,” Watson said. “If we could cut drugs in this county, we could cut crime.”
McPeak added there also has been discussion about having officers from other departments participate in the drug units to help bring it to 20 to 30 law enforcement officers, split into teams.
“You’ve got an extra 15 bodies out there to clean up the streets, that could do some big damage,” McPeak said.
Proponents have said the proposed 1 percent sales tax increase would help economic development in St. Clair County during the next 12 years, if approved.
“What we’re saying is, over 12 years we should increase our population because of public safety, increase our businesses because of public safety,” Watson said. “At the end of this 12 years, we should be able to sustain this, and all the big infrastructure projects will be done.”
Paying for probation services
If the sales tax referendum passes, there would be $2 million a year allocated for probation services.
Paul Sullivan, a St. Clair County probation officer and vice president of the union that represents probation officers, has said the probation department is understaffed.
The union said the additional revenue would alleviate staffing issues for the department.
Money for probation comes from probation fees, electronic monitoring fees as well as from the county and state. However, the state is behind $4 million to $5 million on probation payments to the county from the last six to seven years, county officials say.
In St. Clair County, the probation department has a case load of about 3,000 people. Of those, about 1,600 cases involve people who are medium to high risk or need intensive probation. Those cases include sex offenders, people with domestic violence cases, drug charges, among other things, Sullivan said.
We work alongside law enforcement officers in keeping our county safe. The probation officers in St. Clair County provide an essential service that keeps the community safe and saves taxpayers millions of dollars.
Paul Sullivan St. Clair County Probation officer, and union vice president
To handle those 1,600 cases, the St. Clair County Probation Department has 11 officers, bringing the average caseload to 140 to 145 per officer.
Sullivan said a probation officer overseeing sex offenders has 150 to 160 cases.
The state’s Administrative Office of Illinois Courts recommends the case load for offenders needing maximum supervision be 50 cases for every probation officer. Those officers who have offenders who need moderate supervision should have a caseload ratio of 120 to 1.
Sullivan said in order for the St. Clair County Probation Department to meet these recommended ratios, it would have to hire 10 to 12 additional officers.
“We work alongside law enforcement officers in keeping our county safe,” Sullivan said in the union’s endorsement of the public safety sales tax. “The probation officers in St. Clair County provide an essential service that keeps the community safe and saves taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Municipalities and fire districts
If the public safety sales tax referendum passes, 25 percent of the money, an estimated $5.5 million a year, would be distributed to municipalities and fire protection districts in the county to bolster police departments and fire departments.
However, those units of government would not be allowed to take the public safety sales tax money to supplant existing money, Watson said. Intergovernmental agreements would be in place before money is distributed.
“You got to remember the money actually comes to the county and then will be distributed out, but you will have to sign an intergovernmental agreement that says you will not deplete your budget and supplant it with this money, because that was some of the concern some of the citizens had they would do the old (switch) they did with the lottery,” Watson said. “We don’t want to do that. If you try to do that, you won’t get the money.”
Watson said fire departments in the area, most of which don’t have full-time firefighters and are staffed by volunteers could use the money for equipment.
“That’s what people need to look at,” Watson said. “They’re donating their time, so let’s keep them safe and give them the right stuff to use.”
$5.5 million The amount of public safety sales money that would be distributed to municipalities and fire protection districts based on population, if the 1 percent public safety sales tax passes.
The Northwest St. Clair County Fire Protection District can expect to see about $78,000 a year in additional revenue, district officials said.
The district would use the money, if the sales tax increase is approved, to purchase equipment and to help with bond payments, officials said.
“The technology of the fire service changes every day, and we have to keep up with compliance and the safety of our firefighters,” said Fire Chief Chester Borkowski. “To do that, that’s a cost factor. That money could be used to keep up with it.”
Recently the district bought iPads and software for its vehicles, at a cost of $6,000. New radios with multiple frequencies to be able to communicate with other agencies could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000.
A new breathing apparatus for a firefighter costs about $6,000. An apparatus can get damaged on calls, and the apparatuses need to regularly be tested, and every few years have to be replaced, said Northwest Fire District Board President Paris Nation.
Presently, the primary source of income for the fire district is property taxes.
Nation said the extra revenue would be a benefit because the district is careful in how it spends its money.
“Right now, we run right on the edge of what we receive for taxes and what we spend for the fire district,” Nation said. “Every year we’re either just a little one way or the other of staying in balance. Sometimes we have to add cash from reserves, sometimes we’re even. There’s no excess.”
The technology of the fire service changes every day, and we have to keep up with compliance and the safety of our firefighters. To do that that’s a cost factor. That money could be used to keep up with it.
Northwest St. Clair County Fire Protection Chief Chester Borkowski
The city of Belleville could expect to see about $900,000 from the public safety sales tax, if approved. The money would be split between the city’s fire department and police department.
Belleville Fire Chief Tom Pour, who runs a department with full-time firefighters, said his department would use the money to replace older fire engines on a more regular basis. Fire trucks have more electronics and communications systems than in the past.
The systems are safer, but apparatus don’t last as long in order to be “top of the line,” Pour said.
Pour said he would replace a truck once every three years, which would cover a truck for each of the city’s four stations.
Currently Belleville has replaced a truck once every five years, which means a front line truck would be in service for 20 years. Each station also has a reserve truck, which would put its use at 40 years, Pour said.
The proposed 1 percent public safety sales tax would bring in an estimated $22 million a year to St. Clair County, sales tax proponents have said.
The additional sales tax revenue would allow trucks to be on the front line for 12 years, and then in reserve for an additional 12 years, Pour said.
“Twenty-four years is still a long time,” Pour said.
The cost of fire engines also have been increasing with electronics, safety upgrades and emissions upgrade. A truck that was purchased 14 years ago cost about $208,000, Pour said. He added the cost of vehicles doubles every 10 to 15 years.
“I’m in favor of being able to get my trucks into a quicker turnaround,” Pour said.
The Belleville Police Department would look at hiring two to four officers, said Police Chief William Clay. It costs about $80,000 to hire one officer when taking into account salary, benefits and equipment.
“The money goes quick,” Clay said.
Any remaining amount would go toward equipment for the department, Clay said.
However to add an additional beat area in town would require hiring six officers to ensure 24 hours of coverage seven days a week.
More officers on patrol could help set up a perimeter when a crime is reported and help with catching an offender, who may be responsible for multiple crimes, such as in a burglary spree.
“If you had new patrol officers, you have a quicker response time,” Clay said.
Reporter Don O’Brien contributed to this article.
Where’s the money going?
The proposed 1 percent public safety sales tax is expected to generate $22 million in St. Clair County. Here’s how the county plans to distribute the money:
- $5.5 million a year for municipalities and unincorporated areas on a per capita basis to be used for police or fire department enhancements
- $2 million a year for probation services
- $6 million a year for jail modernization and renovations
- $1 million for courthouse security renovations
- $5.6 million for sheriff’s personnel
- $500,000 for a countywide use police shooting range
- $50,000 for a countywide emergency alert system
- $250,000 for the State’s Attorney’s Office
- $500,000 to the Metro East Police District Commission for the implementation of the district public safety plan
- $200,000 for the coroner’s office
- $200,000 to support the Child Advocacy Center, Court Appointed Specials Advocates, senior citizen neglect and abuse prevention programs
- $200,000 for Criminal justice information technology integration
- In 2015, the county spent $41.2 million on public safety costs including sheriff’s personnel, probation personnel, animal control and 911 services, among other things, according to audited figures. Overall, the county spent $109.5 million on governmental activities, which does not include MidAmerica Airport costs, the audited figures say. The figures include asset depreciation, which is considered an expense.