Mayoral candidates clash on all city financial issues

Dallas Cook on Finance & Infrastructure

Belleville, IL mayoral candidate Dallas Cook opposes tax incentives for businesses and wants a city sales tax to expire.
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Belleville, IL mayoral candidate Dallas Cook opposes tax incentives for businesses and wants a city sales tax to expire.

The mix of beer and tax incentives has produced varied results in Belleville.

Aldermen have approved incentives for the Hofbräuhaus German restaurant and brewery under construction off Illinois 15 and 4204 Main Street Brewing Co.’s new brewery that is scheduled to open soon off West Main Street.

Construction on the Hofbräuhaus began in late 2015 but an opening date has yet to be announced. However, 4204 Main Street Brewing Co. expects to begin brewing its lineup of diverse beers in the former Mad Pricer grocery store in mid-April as part of a $3 million renovation.

The two candidates running for mayor give voters a clear choice on April 4 on tax incentives: Mayor Mark Eckert supports the tax incentives for businesses such as the Hofbräuhaus and 4204 Main Street Brewing Co., and City Clerk Dallas Cook opposes all incentives.

Eckert, 61, has been mayor since 2004, and Cook, 31, has been city clerk since 2013. Cook is the son of former Mayor Rodger Cook.

Eckert said he looks at tax incentive requests on a “case-by-case basis.”

“My belief is that when a business cannot get started or cannot grow without some assistance, then I believe it is the city’s responsibility to sit down at the table and see how we might get involved,” Eckert said.

Cook said government should not be involved in private business.

“I think we can make our streets safe, fix our sidewalks, fight crime as best as we can and then businesses will want to be here because the type of people who want to live in this town will then shop and enjoy living here and working here,” Cook said. “I feel like the most important thing you can do to get business in town is to have a safe town.”

Along with the issue of tax incentives for businesses, the BND also talked to Cook and Eckert about other financial issues, including the expiration of the city’s 0.25 percent sales tax this year; the expiration of TIF 3 in 2021; and street repairs. Cook and Eckert have differing viewpoints on how to handle these topics.

Here’s a closer look on where they stand:

Tax incentives

Belleville businesses have been offered various tax incentives in recent years, including property tax breaks, TIF grants, a share of hotel tax revenue, funding from an extra 1 percent sales tax in selected shopping centers, and an exemption from state sales tax on construction material.

“I oppose tax incentives. I really don’t believe that your tax dollars should be used in private business. I do not find it necessary,” Cook said.

“I know that a lot of people like to say, ‘Well everybody else is doing it and if we don’t do it, then we’re going to lose out.’ I don’t agree with that model in life, that just because everyone else is doing that means you have to,” Cook said. “I think we can do better than that.”

Eckert said the incentives are needed for economic development.

“My opponent has said he doesn’t want to give any business any tax incentives and I disagree with him, respectfully, because I believe ... we’re going to be missing out on some great opportunities to fill some spaces, create some jobs and increase our sales tax,” Eckert said.

“Many people, including my opponent always talk about hiring more police officers,” Eckert said. “If we don’t grow our sales tax, that is impossible to do.”

My belief is that when a business cannot get started or cannot grow without some assistance, then I believe it is the city’s responsibility to sit down at the table and see how we might get involved.

Mayor Mark Eckert

Developers of the $12 million Hofbräuhaus project also have proposed a $28 million Hyatt Place hotel, a conference center and restaurant. Another developer proposed a soccer park but none of the businesses have opened on the land across from the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.

The City Council in 2015 approved about $38 million in tax incentives for the complex valued by developers as worth up to $100 million. The Keller family of Effingham is eligible to receive about $32.36 million in incentives while developers of a soccer park would be eligible to get $5.5 million in incentives.

But the incentives are based on city tax revenue generated at the site so no one has received any rebates to date.

Belleville agreed to spend $2.3 million to extend sewer lines to serve the Hofbräuhaus site and surrounding area. This work is about 99 percent complete, according to the city.

Ron O’Connor, a spokesman for the Keller family said he did not have an opening date to announce for the Hofbrauhaus.

“You see a lot of things around the St. Louis metro area that (have) gone up in the last three months, they have no problem with construction,” Cook said. “However, for some reason out there, they’re not able to complete the first part of their project.”

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” he said. “I think the people in the city would like to know more because we are heavily invested and we are heavily excited, both the same. However, when you make a deal with the city, you need to hold up your end of the bargain because the city has held up theirs.”

I oppose tax incentives. I really don’t believe that your tax dollars should be used in private business.

City Clerk Dallas Cook

Eckert said the Hofbrauhaus may be open this summer, which would be over a year later than the developers first expected to open the restaurant and brewery.

“I believe we did the right thing,” Eckert said. “They’re back working again. I’m very optimistic that when spring is officially here, that they’re going to be working very aggressively.

“I’m not happy (with) the fact that it’s not open but I will tell you that I still very much believe in the project. It’s going to be good for the Shrine. We need this project to be successful, so that the Shrine remains successful.”

Eckert said tax incentives have helped 4204 Main Street Brewing open at its original site and then expand with a new brewery, tap room and banquet hall at 6435 W. Main St., where a grand opening is planned for 5 p.m. March 25 to show off the bar and banquet room. The brew house and canning operation is expected to open in mid-April.

“So there’s an example where the incentives, I believe, truly paid off,” Eckert said.

He also said The EDGE expansion at 701 South Belt West, the opening of Ruler Foods at 1703 North Belt West and the Belleville Crossing and Green Mount Crossing shopping centers have benefited from tax incentives from the city.

City sales tax expiring

While St. Clair County and local school leaders are asking voters on April 4 to approve a 1 percent sales tax referendum for public safety and a 1 percent referendum for school facilities, Belleville leaders have to make a decision on whether to continue a 0.25 percent municipal sales tax that is scheduled to expire this year.

Belleville receives about $1.2 million a year from this sales tax.

Cook believes the tax should be allowed to expire while Eckert says if re-elected, he would urge the City Council to vote to continue the tax.

Eckert said the tax was needed to replace about $750,000 in state funding that was cut.

A 0.25 percent municipal sales tax in Belleville is scheduled to expire this year. The city receives about $1.2 million a year from this sales tax.

“That was a major chunk of revenue,” he said.

“Unless people want to see some drastic cuts in essential service, unfortunately, it’s going to have to stay,” Eckert said. “And if somebody says they’re against it, then don’t talk out of the other side of your mouth and tell me you want to hire more police officers, and you want to see more officers on the street. You can’t have it both ways.”

Cook said if he wins the mayor’s seat, he’ll ask aldermen to let the tax expire.

“I will do whatever it takes to make sure that we do not have to continue that,” Cook said. “I know how difficult it will be to lose out on that much money for city operations.

“I think we’ve gone in the wrong direction with government when we think we can just continually add taxes and taxes and then we add a tax on people and we tell them it’s going to sunset and then it never sunsets. I just feel like, hey, enough is enough. No more taxes.”

Street repairs

Bernie Depper, who has lived on South Church Street near East Van Buren Street for over 20 years, takes a pragmatic view of whether he would want the city to smooth the bumpy streets near his home.

“I would in a way, but then again here I am, my taxes go speeeeeeeewww and they’re already pretty high,” he said with a laugh as he pointed his thumb to the sky.

Depper said the city would have to look at what could be done and weigh that against the cost to the taxpayers.

He said the city’s snowplows damage the pavement laid on top of bricks, which are exposed in spots near his home.

Cook and Eckert were asked about their plans for street repairs.

“We have a five-year plan and each year we look at how much money is available and we prioritize based on safety issues,” Eckert said. “A project will move up to the top of the list if it becomes a dangerous situation.”

Eckert said the city takes traffic counts and receives input from aldermen about streets that need repairs. He said about $80 million has been spent on roadwork and sidewalks in the city since he became mayor in 2004.

Eckert also said roads and sidewalks near schools receive a priority.

“We want the walkability of the sidewalks for the young moms and the grandparents that are taking the kids to school,” he said.

He said the city has plans to work on East A Street from Oak to Illinois streets and on West Main Street from Sixth to 17th streets.

It doesn’t scare me that it expires.

Dallas Cook said of TIF District 3

When asked about Church Street, Eckert called it “one of the biggest washboards in town.”

“I am committed, if I’m elected for another four years, we have got to get Church Street and we’ve got to get Mascoutah Avenue repaired. They both need it bad.

“This is the dilemma we’re in,” Eckert said. “There’s only so many dollars these days and there are a lot of streets in Belleville that need attention.”

Cook said he would scrap the current method used to determine which streets to fix.

“I demand a new process,” he said.

Cook promises to eliminate the positions of city engineer and GIS planner/coordinator and instead hire an outside engineering firm “to do a better job for less money.”

“I think if you go downtown, you’ll say, ‘Wow, really nice.’ But then if you go into some of the neighborhoods around downtown, you’ll think you almost hit a war zone where you can barely drive down the street,” Cook said.

“You can’t even walk down some sidewalks in my neighborhood. It’s in deplorable condition.

“Then if you keep going around town, there are some streets that have been repaired but the question you should ask is ‘Who lives on that street?’ And you’ll find someone that lives on that street who is part of the club and that’s the way it’s done right now.”

TIF 3 deadline

Belleville’s tax increment finance, or TIF, District 3 brought in $10.8 million in property taxes and $458,000 in other revenue for a total of $11.2 million in the last fiscal year. Local school districts received about $4.3 million from TIF 3.

In a TIF district, property values in the district are frozen at their current levels for a 23-year period and any additional revenue generated by a rise in property values is channeled into a special fund earmarked for infrastructure improvements and economic incentives in the district. It is intended to help property that would not develop on its own, property that would not see new growth without the public investment.

TIF District 3 covers most of the city and was established in 1986. The life span was extended for 12 years and the district is scheduled to expire in 2021. The total amount you pay in city property taxes doesn’t change whether you live in the TIF District 3 or out of it.

“It doesn’t scare me that it expires,” Cook said. “I’m actually looking forward to the TIFs all expiring.”

“All the city has to do is levy for those taxes,” he said. “If you pay $100 into it now, that $100 will no longer say TIF 3, you’ll still be paying the same amount of taxes.

“The thing about TIF is that the monies that are raised through TIF are a little bit more discretionary how you can spend those,” Cook said. “You know you can use those on different projects and incentives that tend to not be spent with the regular general fund. So with my attitude towards government, I do not fear losing out on TIF 3.”

It’s a very serious matter. We’re going to have to take a serious look.

Mark Eckert on TIF District 3

Eckert said of the $80 million spent on roadwork during his tenure, most of the funding came from TIF 3.

If he is re-elected, he said will organize a committee or task force “to talk about what happens after the end of TIF 3.”

State lawmakers last year approved a second 12-year extension for a TIF district in Springfield, according to local media reports. In the past, TIF districts have only been allowed to have one extension. Eckert said he’s not saying that’s what Belleville would seek but it is something that would be researched.

“It’s a very serious matter,” he said. “We’re going to have to take a serious look.”

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