Most of us have faith in our law enforcement. Most of us have faith in our schools. Most of us think it is our collective responsibility to give them enough resources to effectively do their jobs.
But we have much less faith in the hierarchies responsible for getting our state income taxes, federal income taxes, gasoline taxes, sales taxes and property taxes from us to them. Our trust has been repeatedly betrayed despite one of the nation’s highest tax burdens — with yet another state tax hike looming.
The frontline troops are in the awkward position of asking us to essentially bypass their untrustworthy masters on April 4. St. Clair County schools seek a 1 percent sales tax for school construction and debt. County law enforcement seeks another 1 percent sales tax, three-fourths of which goes to county functions such as rebuilding the jail and patrol deputies, one-fourth distributed per capita to municipal police and local fire departments. Together the sales taxes are expected to yield another $44 million.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly says the 1 percent sales tax for law enforcement is needed because the taxes we pay the federal government are not flowing back as they once did and the state tax dollars are not flowing back as were promised. The cavalry ain’t coming, so he says we need to save ourselves.
What he doesn’t say, but what everyone is thinking, is that the county dollars also are not making it to the deputies and probation officers and others in law enforcement. Taxpayers handed St. Clair County $163 million last year, but only $31.5 million of that went to the county functions that we actually regard as services. Then there was whatever millions to prop up MidAmerica Airport — $6.5 million in 2015 was the most recent number released, for a grand total $81 million subsidy since 2002.
Kelly stresses that money from the law enforcement sales tax cannot be used to supplant county money currently spent on law enforcement. He says there are legal remedies to stop or fix any additional robbing from the cops — the county sues the county?
But the problem is that the cops were already robbed. This tax is needed because the county, along with the feds and state, already shirked their responsibilities to pass on what we already gave them for these law enforcement functions.
Ignoring those breaches of trust is a hard sell, especially when we hear silence from the fifth floor of the St. Clair County Building regarding their culpability. Kern & Co. offer no assurances — much less anything in writing — that they will not pull some slick accounting moves or shell game to slip, slide, supplant or otherwise dodge their obligation to pass along money we already pay for law enforcement’s protections.
Contrast that to the schools making concrete promises. School boards are telling voters the amount of property taxes they will abate if given a new 1 percent sales tax: Promised property tax savings of $190 a year for a $100,000 home in the Belleville grade school and high school districts, $108 in Millstadt.
But they, too, are vulnerable to the same vagaries of state and economy that can put a whole lot of pressure on those promises. A county-wide, double-digit sales tax rate that makes us the highest in the region could create its own economic whiplash.
At the core, our education and law enforcement institutions need to be redesigned, combined or reformed to meet 2020’s needs and finances. Most were created in the 1800s and have become so costly because they still follow the path set back then. No one’s being given the chance to vote on taxing body consolidation.
Proponents’ best hope is to trade on our faith, because it is tough to trust a future in which we do more of that which is failing.