Metro-East News

Madison County voters will get to weigh in on tax reform

Madison County voters will vote on three tax-related referendums this fall, two of which are newly-added “advisory” votes aimed at Springfield.

The Madison County Board voted Wednesday to put two more advisory referendums on the November ballot, which Board Chairman Alan Dunstan said were proposed as “real property tax reform.” He said reducing the property tax burden in Illinois means adequately addressing education funding from the state, eliminating unfunded mandates imposed on local government and school districts, and controlling costs.

“The Illinois Constitution requires the state provide for the primary funding for public education,” Dunstan said. “The state does not meet this obligation, only providing 28 percent, forcing school districts to rely on property taxes to pay for public education.”

The largest percentage of the average property tax bill goes to public schools, Dunstan said, and so the biggest impact on the average homeowner’s bill comes from schools.

The first referendum added to the ballot calls for the state to address state funding support for education, allowing a permanent reduction in property taxes. The second addresses property tax increase notices: at the moment, taxing bodies are only required to put a legal ad in a newspaper when they intend to increase taxes by more than 5 percent. Dunstan said he believes taxpayers should be directly notified by mail at least 30 days in advance of the hearing. “This will help assure taxpayers have a voice in their government,” Dunstan said.

Madison County voters also will be deciding on a 5-cent property tax decrease in the county’s maximum tax rate, which Dunstan opposes and which is supported by his opponent for chairman, Republican Kurt Prenzler. Proponents of the reduction say it eliminates excess funds the county does not need; opponents say it will require cuts in law enforcement while only saving the owner of a $100,000 home $6 a year.

Dunstan said that Madison County is “leading by example” by reducing the county’s portion of property taxes each year. “We have a balanced budget and operate within our means, unlike the state and federal governments,” he said. “The county is 100 percent debt free and in a strong financial position. … As chairman, I am very proud of what has been accomplished in Madison County.”

But Dunstan said keeping property taxes low means it is “absolutely essential” that the state fulfills its constitutional obligation to schools, which he said would provide significant property tax relief.

But board member Michael Walters (R-Godfrey) said he feels that the referendum is essentially attacking the county’s state legislators. “And I feel our state legislators do a fine job,” he said. He said he feels these issues are largely state issues and the county should stay out of it. “I wish the state would take (these issues) up,” he said. But it would be better to send a letter to the legislators, not a county referendum, he said.

But Dunstan said it is a county issue because every voter tells their county representatives that they want lower property taxes, and most of the property tax bills go to the schools trying to make up for the lack of state funding. “Both Democrats and Republicans are interested in property tax reform,” he said. “But because we send out the tax bill, the county gets the blame.”

Board member Steve Adler (R-Alton) said that “property tax reform begins at home.” He said he believes it would increase taxes further to have to mail out a notice to taxpayers.

Board member Mick Madison (R-Bethalto) said he also was concerned about the cost of the mailing, but was worried that taxing bodies would just increase at 4.99 percent to avoid the mailing. “If we’re going to say that, we should put some teeth in it,” he said, suggesting that it be set at 2 percent. Dunstan said they picked 5 percent because that is the amount listed in Illinois’ Truth in Taxation laws, which require the public hearing at tax increases of 5 percent.

Judy Kuhn said that Illinois ranks far below other states, and county administrator Joe Parente said that Illinois is 49th out of 50 states for funding.

The vote to put the advisory referenda on the ballot was 22-2, with Adler and board member Lisa Ciampoli (R-Collinsville) voting no, Madison and Walters abstained and three members absent. As it is advisory only, it will have no immediate impact, but expresses the wish of the voters to public officials.

Madison said he intended to introduce his own advisory referendum regarding term limits, while other board members said they were concerned that voters might approve the advisory referendum without realizing it would not have an immediate impact.

But board member Liz Dalton (D-Collinsville) said they should give voters credit for understanding the difference between an advisory and binding referendum, and it would raise awareness on the issue of property taxes and education funding. “Some of them may not be aware that the state is not funding education as it supposed to,” she said.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald