Metro-East News

Madison County GOP turns in petition forcing tax referendum

Madison County Republican leaders turned in a petition Friday to force a referendum on a county property tax reduction.

Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, who is challenging County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan in November, said he planned to turn in a petition with 10,000 signatures Friday afternoon to force a vote on a reduction in the county’s tax rate. Prenzler said he believes the county overtaxes residents to create a surplus for capital improvements.

“We can cut the county maximum tax rate, and since we run a large surplus, it won’t affect any jobs or critical services at the county,” Prenzler said. “This is a win-win for taxpayers.”

The petition drive was led by Edwardsville veterinarian Mike Firsching, a former Congressional candidate who was also involved in a petition drive to prevent Edwardsville School District 7 from borrowing money against its working cash fund last fall.

“When you talk to Madison County taxpayers the first thing they tell you is their property taxes are too high and climbing fast,” Firsching said. “Since the county has plenty of money and all this referendum will cut is surplus money, it was an easy sell. Almost everyone that we talked to signed the petition.”

Dunstan has disputed Prenzler’s assertions. While the county is permitted to tax to 0.25 percent, he said, they have not taxed to that amount in a long time, averaging 0.22 for the last several years, he said.

The 2016 tax rate is down 3.5 percent with an $800,000 levy reduction from last year, according to calculations released Monday from the office of County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza.

The petition would lower the maximum tax rate to 0.20, which has been criticized by State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons and Sheriff John Lakin, both Democrats, as seriously limiting budgets for law-enforcement agencies. Dunstan estimated the savings for a homeowner with a $100,000 home would be less than $6 per year, while it would require the county to lay off 28 to 47 employees.

“Because the majority of the general fund pays for public safety and criminal justice programs, lowering the maximum general fund tax rate would have a negative impact on these services,” Dunstan said. “There would be an immediate loss of revenue if the reduction is approved by the voters. Lowering the maximum rate will require immediate cuts, make it difficult for Madison County to deal with future state revenue shortfalls, handle the effects of an economic downturn, and address inflationary increases. Most importantly, programs to protect the public would be impacted.”

The estimation of the homeowner’s savings on the petition drive was approximately $16 per year, Prenzler said.

Firsching said nearly everyone he approached was solidly in favor of reducing their property taxes, no matter the amount. “Pretty much the response I had when I was personally collecting this... they were very enthusiastic, any sort of relief is really attractive to them,” he said. “There’s not enough money to go around and people are very anxious about it.”

Prenzler and Dunstan have faced off over tax referenda before. In 2013, the County Board voted to issue bonds for a renovation of the Madison County Jail. Prenzler coordinated a petition drive to place the jail bonds on the ballot. The argument from those who opposed the bonds was that county budget surpluses should be used for the renovation instead of borrowing funds. Dunstan and other bond proponents had argued that using annual surpluses would stretch the project out by years and it would cost more in the long run.

Voters rejected the jail bonds in 2014, and the jail renovation project was sent back to the architects. Lakin said no significant renovations have yet been accomplished.

“This is not a renovation where we are putting in flatscreen TVs, Tempurpedic mattresses and carpeting all the cells,” Lakin said. “We’re dealing with crumbling infrastructure, with fire suppression systems... These are things that need to be done. It’s a 30-year-old building and eventually you have to replace pipes and drains and things like that.”

When asked how to accomplish the jail renovation without the surplus funds or bonds, Prenzler said he would wait on the architects’ recommendation and then reevaluate what work was necessary.

Lakin also said he is concerned about the impact this proposed cut would have on his department, apart from the jail renovation. He said a 0.20 cap would mean a $600,000 budget cut for the sheriff’s department, with a possible six to 10 deputies laid off. He said they have already cut 15 employees in his department since 2008, and the jail remains nearly at its 300-inmate capacity with an average daily population of 290.

“It’s not that I would ever have taken a stance against tax reform or someone’s right to vote, but on the public being misled about what lowering the tax rate would affect,” Lakin said. “They’re being told it’ll save them 20 percent of their tax bill without costing anyone a job, and those things are not correct. If this referendum goes through, it will cost at least $600,000 out of my budget that directly affects personnel. I would never be for telling someone I’m against tax reform. But I want the public to be honestly told what this is, and what the true effect of it will be.”

Dunstan said the average Madison County taxpayer with a $100,000 home pays less than $60 per year in taxes to Madison County, while the majority of the property tax bill goes to schools. He said he supports statewide school funding changes to alleviate the pressure on property taxes for funding schools, not “a selective tax restriction that hinders public safety.” In the meantime, he said, Madison County has a balanced budget and currently carries no debt.

The petition needed a minimum of 8,033 to put the referendum on the November ballot, according to the drive organizers.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald