Highland News Leader

Highland school leaders hope third time is a charm for sales tax referendum

Picket signs at the Poplar Street and Route 143 roundabout in Highland. On March 20, voters in Madison County will cast their ballots for a third time on a sales tax that would benefit local schools. The left is a sign promotes the measure, while the right presents its opposition.
Picket signs at the Poplar Street and Route 143 roundabout in Highland. On March 20, voters in Madison County will cast their ballots for a third time on a sales tax that would benefit local schools. The left is a sign promotes the measure, while the right presents its opposition. mbraa@bnd.com

On March 20, voters in Madison County will cast their ballots for a third time on a sales tax that would benefit local schools.

Voters in the county previously rejected the sales tax increase in 2011 and 2017. However, the electorate came a long way in those six years. In 2011, the measure was rejected by a 4-to-1 margin. But last year, it failed by only 259 votes, so local school leaders decided to give it another try during the next week's primary election.

In order to get the tax referendum on the spring ballot, school boards representing at least 50 percent of the students in Madison County had to adopt the resolution. For this year's ballot, 12 out of 13 schools supported the proposal. Collinsville Unit 10 was the only school district that didn’t ask for the sales tax question to come back in another election.

Supporters argue that the sales tax increase would help schools rely less on property taxes. Most of the school boards have said they expect to reduce the amount of money residents pay to school districts through their property taxes if the measure passes, including Highland and Triad.

"This sales tax is by far the most painless way of creating a new revenue stream without increasing property taxes," said Highland School Board President Jim Gallatin.

However, Nancy Moss, spokesperson for Madison County Citizens for Sustainable Education, a group opposed to the tax, said that argument doesn't hold up.

“So, if we fall into another recession, and sales tax revenues are down and there isn’t enough money to make their minimum bond payments, our property taxes will actually go up, as required by state law," Moss said. “That’s why we have to read through the fine print and put the claims of ‘lower property taxes’ into proper context. It’s laughable that someone would claim that they need to raise our taxes in order to lower them. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

How much money & where it comes from

It's estimated the 1 percent County School Facility Tax would mean an extra $1.6 million per year for Highland School District coffers, money advocates say many non-residents would be paying.

"The key is that 30-40 percent of the revenue will be generated by folks who live outside Madison county and the other will offset future needs to levy additional property taxes," said Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton.

The tax would not apply to cars, boats, ATVs, RVs, mobile homes, agriculture machinery and inputs, groceries and medicine. But it would also raise the sales tax rate in Highland to 9.35 percent on other items. The measure’s opponents call it a “terrible deal” for taxpayers.

"Although cars and farm implements aren’t impacted many other big-ticket items are," said Madison County Board Member Phil Chapman of Highland, an opponent of the tax. "Why should someone buy a lumber package or a major construction machine in Madison County if it costs $1,000 more due to the sales tax in Madison County? Do you want to chop the legs out from under your neighbors?"

Money would be collected on all sales within the county and disbursed back to school districts based on student population.

The law allows that the money can be used to build facilities, buy land, repair existing facilities, technology infrastructure, or purchase durable equipment (non-moveable items). The money can also be used to relieve the weight of existing debt incurred for those purpose. The money cannot be used for salaries, operating costs, text books, buses, furniture, etc.

Triad is considering possible building expansions, including at Triad Middle School, where students are outgrowing the cafeteria and eating lunch at 10:25 a.m. because of it.

While Triad has been adding more students, enrollment in Highland District 5 has decreased in the last five years, according to Sutton. He thinks improving the facilities could help.

“Many families moving to the area shop around for the best schools when making decisions,” Sutton said.

Why 9.35 percent?

Currently, Highland's total sales tax rate is 7.85 percent.

However, the Highland City Council recently approved a .5 percent sales tax increase to help fund public safety needs, and other development and redevelopment costs. The sales tax rate will raise the city's overall rate to 8.35 percent when it comes into effect this summer. This new city sales tax will last for the next 20 years.

If voters approve the school sales tax, it would add an additional 1 percent, raising the overall rate to 9.35 percent. There is no sunset to the school tax.

How Highland would spend the money

If the referendum passes, the Highland School District plans to put 50 percent of the money toward reducing property taxes. According to a plan the district submitted to One Cent Makes Sense for Madison County, the property tax relief for homeowners in would be:

  • $73 per year for a $100,000 home;

  • $109 per year for a $150,000 home;

  • $146 per year for a $200,000 home; and

  • $182 per year for a $250,000 home.

However, opponents point out that future school boards could renege on the promise of using the money for property tax relief.

"If you pass the 1 percent sales tax, your school board may still raise your property tax," said Chapman. "Seventy-one of my property tax goes to schools. This is true even if they promise not to. Has your school board ever reduced your property tax?"

Sutton said the Highland School District plans to use the other half of the money to complete projects that would otherwise create new debt.

"The revenue will help prevent additional needs for bonds down the road," Sutton said.

Sutton said the district's main focus would be the district's five-year facilities plan.

"In addition to tax abatement, we will be able provide our students with the facilities they deserve to develop their talents," Gallatin said.

The Highland School Board recently amended the five-year plan to include an additional two years of projects. The total cost of the projects left on the five-year plan is about $2.85 million.

“Our facilities are maintained very well. But we have not upgraded many facilities due to financial restraints over the last several years,” Sutton said.

The additional funds would be used to:

  • repair/renovate/address parking lots;

  • HVAC replacement at district buildings;

  • repairs/renovations to athletic fields such as football field, tracks, soccer fields, and tennis courts as needed;
  • complete Health Life Safety projects;
  • restroom/locker room renovations;
  • upgrading fine arts facilities;
  • upgrading technology infrastructure;
  • and improving of building security.

Gallatin said these improvements need to be made to keep the district competitive.

"In order to attract new families to Highland, we need to continue to maintain and improve our facilities, as they are able to do in surrounding counties because of this source of funding," Gallatin said.

Moss sees the tax as having the exact opposite effect.

“This is still a tax that adds to the crushing tax burden that we face here in Illinois, which now has the highest combined state and local taxes in the nation. The state legislature raised our income taxes by 32 percent last summer, and now we are confronted with yet another local tax. At what point do we say: ‘Enough is enough.’?” Moss said.

Find out more

Plans from Highland and other Madison County school districts can be found on onecentmakessense.org.

Follow the opposition on Facebook by searching Madison County Citizens for Sustainable Education.