Metro-East News

St. Clair County considering public safety sales tax

After voters said “no” in 2014 to a sales tax hike to pay for jail renovations, St. Clair County officials are looking to try again, this time with a bigger request.

On Monday, St. Clair County Board members are scheduled to vote on whether to put a 1 percent sales tax hike on the April ballot to help pay for public safety needs in the county.

This proposed tax would be in place for 12 years and would not apply to groceries, medication and titled vehicles, said St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson.

Watson estimated the tax hike would bring in $21.6 million a year to the county. The county would rebate 25 percent of the money back to municipalities on a per capita basis, if the referendum passes. That money would have to be used for public safety purposes, such as fire departments or police departments.

In March 2014, a sales tax referendum which would have added a quarter of 1 percent sales tax to pay for an expansion at the St. Clair County Jail failed, with 68 percent of voters saying “no” to the tax hike. That tax would have been in place for 25 years to help pay for the $37 million jail project and would have brought in an estimated $5.6 million a year to the county.

“This is not only jail renovations, this is going to encompass everybody in the county,” Watson said. “Everyone in the county will benefit from this.”

The discussion of the sales tax hike comes as 70 percent of the county’s general fund budget is going toward court and public safety costs, according to St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern.

Just several years ago courts and public safety was only 50 percent of the county’s general fund budget, Kern said.

When County Board members vote on whether to place the referendum on the ballot, Kern said the resolution would include what would be funded with the new revenue.

Among the items that would be funded are expanding the jail, providing additional money for the state’s attorney’s office as well as the public defender’s office to keep cases moving in the court system, building a joint shooting range for the county and Scott Air Force Base, and investing in a Code Red system to notify residents of emergencies.

It would help pay for the probation department, because the state has not paid its share of probation costs, Watson said.

“There’s no rules without consequences,” Watson said. “If we don’t have probation officers checking on people and making sure they’re doing the right things, we don’t have any rules.”

Watson added there are people who come from outside the county to shop at places such as St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights and also would pay the sales tax.

“But there’s a lot of people from outside of this area costing you money too, because you have the service,” Watson said. “It’s a much better way to increase public safety than to put it on your property taxes.”

The St. Clair County government proposal comes as school districts in the county are considering placing their own penny sales tax hike on the April ballot in order to pay for school infrastructure and building needs. That tax also would not apply to groceries, medication and titled vehicles.

“Look at your tax bill. I could tell this, I paid $5,000 in (property) taxes; $68 went to the county,” Watson said. “I could tell you $4,000 went to the schools. That would be my answer to that. The primary focus of any government is public safety. If you don’t have public safety, you’re not going to go to the grocery store. You don’t feel safe going there.”

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said the state is behind in payments to help with some of these costs, and the federal government has cut funding for law enforcement.

He added public safety is key for economic development.

“From the state’s attorney’s perspective, from the sheriff’s perspective, we will always be hamstrung in our ability to make progress on economic development if we don’t address the very serious public safety challenge that we have,” Kelly said. “It’s really up to us to provide for our own public safety.”

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter