St. Clair County’s education and law enforcement leaders must have a bit of the gambler in them: They’ve joined forces and decided to go for all or nothing.
Sales tax questions on the April 4 ballot seek a penny on the dollar for school construction and debt as well as a penny on the dollar for law enforcement. If both pass, the average sales tax in St. Clair County will lead the region at 10.47 percent on consumer goods and dining out — but not groceries, pharmaceuticals or cars. Cops and kids will split $44 million a year.
The two questions initially seemed to be competing, with voters likely to pick one or neither, but the two groups are now cooperating and framing the sales taxes as quality of life questions.
In a nutshell, they are asking whether you are willing to spend an extra 50 cents on your steakhouse meal to feel safer and have solid schools. There were 34 leaders who visited us representing the sheriff, probation, rural and large schools, municipal police, fire departments, landlords and banking.
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St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly serves on a local school board and sees both education and law enforcement dwindling as federal dollars continue to drop. He was overly generous in saying Illinois is “not as reliable a partner as it could be.”
“No one is coming to save us and fix these problems. We have to save ourselves,” Kelly said.
He sees better schools and improved public safety as key to potential economic development in areas that will not otherwise develop. The law enforcement sales tax would go away in 12 years, by which time he said new development should fund law enforcement needs.
Schools hear the concern that the sales tax should not just be an extra tax atop high property taxes. Belleville High School Superintendent Jeff Dosier said each of the 23 public school districts in the county is preparing a detailed sheet to show how the sales tax will be used to offset current property taxes or the need for higher property taxes in the future. They are making promises to taxpayers.
One big positive is that the school sales tax will be distributed evenly by student. Smithton parents will see a return on what they spend in Belleville or O’Fallon.
Each year the public safety sales tax should generate $5.5 million for municipal police to be split by population, $6 million for county jail facilities, $2 million for probation, $5.6 million for sheriff’s personnel, $1 million for courthouse security and lesser amounts for child advocacy, senior advocacy, a countywide alert system and other law enforcement improvements. The problems are intertwined.
The chronically overcrowded county jail is leading to lawsuits the county is losing to inmates, to increased workers comp cases as too few corrections officers try to handle too many inmates and as jail capacity forces release of people who really shouldn’t be out. There are about half as many probation officers as recommended to track bad guys who are freed.
We’d all invest 1 percent for guaranteed safety.
Landlord Kevin Bouse said residents and police step up to get bad guys out of his apartments. Those bad guys are released from the crowded jail and return to his apartments for the weekend.
“It affects the morale of law enforcement and the tenants,” Bouse said.
It is hard to argue that there is a need in the schools and in public safety. Still, taxpayers have been in a foul mood — with good reason — in this nation-leading state of state and local taxes.
In one sense these sales taxes are for public services for which we’ve already been taxed. The feds and Illinois are the ones robbing the local services by failing to pass along those dollars. These local taxpayers are being asked to do a work-around or a make-good when the real solution would be more government consolidation so duplication and inequity are reduced — a student on the wrong side of the street should not be given a lesser education; a resident in the wrong city or rural area should not wait 20 minutes for help.
The St. Clair County sales tax proponents are saying 40 percent of the money will come from shoppers who live elsewhere, but we’d like to see the source of that stat. That figure is also being touted by Madison County as it also seeks 1 percent for its schools. We go there, they come here, who knows how much “outsiders” will really fund that $44 million.
Finally more than two-thirds of the public safety sales tax is going to what are essentially county functions. That would be St. Clair County, the entity so proud of holding the line on the county property tax rate and making excuses for the $6.5 million subsidy of MidAmerica Airport — two factors that now have county law enforcement crying for help.
The resolution creating the public safety sales tax question pledges that the sales tax proceeds will not go to the airport. The resolution locks in budgets and supposedly prevents the county from continuing to bleed the departments as new sales tax dollars flow in.
It would be nice to hear St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern swear that on a stack of Bibles, followed by the 29 County Board members. Better yet, get it in writing: “We will not find a slick accountant to help us play a shell game with this public safety funding so you can Fly MidAmerica.”
Even with that pledge, voters may remain in The Who mode: We won’t get fooled again.
We still want to hear from retailers, county politicians, economists and leaders from education, municipalities and civic groups. We also invite the public to write us to weigh in.
We promise to circle back with our recommendation after more research and more listening.