Sheriff Rick Watson talks about sales tax referendum
Editor’s note: On April 4, St. Clair County voters will decide whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase for school facilities and whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase to bolster public safety. This is the last story in a series of five.
Next month’s election won’t be the first time voters have seen sales tax referendums for schools and public safety on ballots in the metro-east.
In 2011, Madison County voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax increase that would have generated new revenue for school facilities; it failed by a more than 4-to-1 margin. In 2014, a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for jail upgrades in St. Clair County failed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
School districts in Madison County have decided to ask voters whether they support the school facilities tax again. St. Clair County voters will see the same proposal for the first time on their April 4 ballots.
Also in St. Clair County, there will be a separate proposal on the ballot to increase the sales tax to strengthen public safety.
Read Part 1: How much would the proposed sales tax increases cost you?
If the two referendums in St. Clair County are approved, the sales tax rate on general merchandise could increase 2 percentage points from its current range of 6.6 to 9.85 percent. Madison County could see a 1 percent increase from its 6.6 to 9.35 percent range in southern areas.
But the tax increases wouldn’t apply to purchases such as medication, groceries, services or cars.
School districts could only use the new tax revenue for specific infrastructure costs — upgrades, new construction, maintenance, etc. — and for paying off existing construction debt. Advocates say using the sales tax revenue to repay debt instead of property taxes would allow districts to offer relief to residents.
Read Part 2: Here’s how schools would use money from proposed sales tax hikes
Law enforcement agencies couldn’t use money from the tax increase to replace existing funding for services. It would instead have to be used to bolster public safety by hiring police officers and firefighters or buying equipment to help them do their jobs, for example.
Proponents of the sales tax increases have learned from the experience three years ago. This time around, the groups that would benefit from the public safety and school referendums in St. Clair County have teamed up to support each other and reach out to voters.
Another attempt to improve the jail
Across the state, 41 counties have adopted the public safety sales tax, according to the Illinois Department of Revenue and the State Board of Elections. A sales tax for public safety purposes has been available to counties since 1996.
In 2014, when there was a request for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to pay for a jail expansion and renovation, St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said he was alone in promoting the effort.
The county had proposed the sales tax be in effect for 25 years.
The effort wasn’t successful.
41 The number of counties that have adopted a public safety sales tax
Now, public safety proponents are trying again, this time asking for a full 1 percent. They are promising to use the money for additional purposes and are using a more organized effort.
“The biggest thing I learned is, you need more time, and you need more people out explaining what’s going on,” Watson said. “After the tax failed the last time, whenever I talk to groups, they always ask me about it. I never bring it up, but they ask me about. Once I explain some of the things ... they go, ‘We would have voted for that.’”
Officials also learned they had to fight against the notion that money generated by the sales tax would be funneled to the St. Clair County-owned MidAmerica Airport.
“A lot of people put out there the money is going to the airport and things like that, which was a total lie, but I couldn’t get out and talk to all 300,000 residents, and tell them it’s a lie,” Watson said. “This time, we have a much bigger group. We have a much more organized effort, and all the talking I’ve done over the last two years, people understand what we need.
“I really feel we’ve got a really good chance at passing this, this time because people see a need.”
Read Part 3: Overcrowding, signs of leaks and broken cell doors plague St. Clair County Jail
When St. Clair County Board members voted to place the new referendum on the ballot, the resolution listed how the estimated $22 million would be allocated.
“The reason why I had the county board come up with this resolution is because I wanted everybody to know where the money is going,” Watson said.
The public safety sales tax would be in place for 12 years if it passes in April.
This time, we have a much bigger group. We have a much more organized effort, and all the talking I’ve done over the last two years, people understand what we need.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson
As part of the effort this year, Watson said there has been increased communication, in person and on social media.
On March 4, corrections officers, police officers, laborers and probation officers, all while off duty, went door-to-door to speak to residents in the county and hand out literature.
Along with people supporting the school facilities sales tax hike, the public safety employees have pushed their message out on Facebook through the “Vote Yes for Safety, Yes for Kids, Yes for our Future” page.
Watson has spoken to neighborhood watch groups, firefighter groups, Rotary clubs and other organizations about the public safety referendum. Members of the sheriff’s department, while off duty, also have been speaking to community groups.
Read Part 4: St. Clair County hopes to add deputies, help firefighters if sales tax increase is approved
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, Belleville School District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier and Belleville School District 118 Superintendent Matt Klosterman recently spoke at a Greater Belleville Area Chamber of Commerce event to promote the sales tax increases.
“We’re going to win,” Watson said. “I just truly believe that all the people that we’ve talked to are really behind this and they see the need,” Watson said.
Local schools try again
St. Clair County school districts talked about putting the school facilities tax on the ballot in November, but ultimately chose not to.
It’s unclear how close they were to the threshold needed for the referendum to be on the Nov. 8 ballot because the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education didn’t keep documentation on file from that effort, according to Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty.
For the school tax to appear on the ballot, districts representing more than half of the county’s student population have to pass resolutions in favor of doing so.
“As soon as the group decided not to put it on the ballot, they stopped sending me resolutions,” Sarfaty said.
Dosier said the districts decided against pursuing the sales tax increase at that time because “there were a lot of uncertainties,” referring to the “turmoil in Springfield.”
“We were uncertain about the budget,” he said.
There are still uncertainties, but Dosier said the districts want to take advantage of an opportunity to reduce property taxes.
“The most important thing to our board is to reduce property taxes,” Dosier said.
If the sales tax increase is approved, District 201 plans to use most of its share, 91 percent, toward relief for residents by using the new revenue to pay its debt instead of tapping into property taxes.
All 27 school districts in St. Clair County voted in favor of placing the 1 percent sales tax increase on the ballot ahead of the April election — though two missed the December deadline to send their resolutions to Sarfaty. She had to get the resolutions to the county clerk’s office by Dec. 23.
I think it was an understanding of what it was: What was being taxed, what wasn’t. It was really about educating people.
Monroe and Randolph Counties Regional Superintendent Kelton Davis
In Madison County, most school boards also voted to support the referendum for the coming election. The two exceptions are Edwardsville District 7, which opted not to vote either way, and Collinsville Unit 10, which narrowly voted against supporting the referendum because school board members felt the sales tax is high enough in Collinsville’s retail and hospitality districts.
Edwardsville is taking a second run at its own property tax referendum, and school officials are focusing their efforts on that instead.
St. Clair and Madison counties aren’t the first in the metro-east to ask voters whether they support a sales tax increase to benefit schools.
In nearby Randolph County, voters approved a school facilities tax two years ago; Regional Superintendent Kelton Davis said it took two tries for the referendum to be passed by a majority.
However, voters in neighboring Monroe County approved the tax the first time it appeared on the ballot in 2016.
School officials by law couldn’t tell the residents how to vote, according to Davis, so they provided facts to the public. Davis said private groups also lobbied for the sales tax increases in both instances.
The referendums were successful in part because voters were informed, Davis said.
“I think it was an understanding of what it was: what was being taxed, what wasn’t,” he said. “It was really about educating people.”
He said taxpayers had been worried the increases would lead to wasteful spending, but the law is specific in the case of the school facilities tax.
“There is no shell game,” Davis said.
Votes around the state
The school facilities sales tax, which was created in Illinois in 2007, has been passed in 47 counties around the state, according to the Illinois Department of Revenue and the State Board of Elections. Some of those counties needed multiple tries to get the tax approved by voters.
Tad Everett is the superintendent of Sterling Public Schools in Whiteside County, in the northern part of the state, which has the school facilities tax in place. It took four attempts to get the tax increase passed there.
“We worked hard at moving the gauge and included really educating what it was for,” Everett said.
Eventually, efforts in Whiteside County focused on convincing elderly people, especially those without grandchildren in school, to support the school tax. A retired hospital executive led a referendum committee and spoke to seniors about the sales tax and how it could be helpful, Everett said.
47 The number of counties that have adopted a school facilities sales tax
Everett also said his school district, which is the biggest in Whiteside County, provided residents a 30-year history of the facility work that had taken place in Sterling’s schools. The list of projects included geothermal heating system upgrades, and roof and parking lot work.
The district spent $800,000 a year on projects, and concluded that spending amount would continue.
“We have a different and better way of funding future projects,” Everett said.
With the sales tax revenue now in place, Everett said Sterling Public Schools is able to abate the health-life-safety portion of its property tax levy; as much as $1 million over the next three years will come off residents’ property tax bills.
The district also is able to embark on a $21.5 million facility plan over three years, which includes a high school football stadium renovation, a middle school addition, and work on a roof, parking lot and playground.
“We did not want to implement a facility plan that raised property taxes,” Everett said.
Elizabeth Donald contributed to this report.
What makes up the sales tax rate
Some municipalities have instituted home-rule sales taxes to generate extra revenue. Some municipalities even have special business districts where an extra 0.5 to 1 percent is levied on sales to help serve as an incentive to developers. Municipalities such as O’Fallon and Fairview Heights have food and beverage taxes on all retail sales of food and beverages that have been prepared for immediate consumption. In O’Fallon, the food and beverage tax is 1 percent. In Fairview Heights, the tax is 2 percent.
- State tax - 6.25 percent
- County Flood Prevention - 0.25 percent
- Metro East Mass Transit (St. Clair County) - 0.75 percent
- Metro East Mass Transit (Madison County) - 0.25 percent
- Metro East Park and Recreation Tax - 0.1 percent
St. Clair County sales tax rates
St. Clair County (areas not served by mass transit)
St. Clair County (areas served by by mass transit)
New Athens Business District
Shiloh - Three Springs Business District
Madison business district
Shiloh - Villages at Wingate, Green Mount Business Districts
Mascoutah Business District
Fairview Heights Business District
O'Fallon Business District
East St. Louis
Swansea Business Districts
Belleville Business Districts
Collinsville Business District
East St. Louis Business District
Southern Madison County
sales tax rates
Madison County (areas not served by mass transit)
Troy (areas not served by mass transit)
Edwardsville (areas not served by mass transit)
Madison County (areas served by mass transit)
Troy (areas served by mass transit)
Edwardsville (areas served by mass transit)
Glen Carbon Business Districts
Madison business district
Maryville Business District
Troy Business Districts
Venice Business District
Edwardsville Business Districts
Collinsville Business Districts
Granite City Nameoki Business District
Granite City Bellemore Village Business District
Missouri sales tax rates
8.679 to 10.679
St. Louis Outlet Mall in Hazelwood
St. Louis Premium Malls in Chesterfield
Tubman Prestige Mall in Chesterfield