Support cops and kids, just not with region’s highest sales tax rates

St. Clair County’s schools and law enforcement made compelling arguments about the need to support them, but we remain convinced structural changes must be made to address their needs.
St. Clair County’s schools and law enforcement made compelling arguments about the need to support them, but we remain convinced structural changes must be made to address their needs. Photo illustration

Ever since January, when 34 leaders from education and law enforcement visited, we’ve been torn about their decision to combine forces and seek two, 1-cent sales tax increases in St. Clair County. Heart tells us to support cops and kids. Head tells us there are better ways.

The institutional reforms required to fix the ills that are keeping both groups from being better and doing better for the public are years or decades away. The behaviors of the state and federal governments that withhold money that should flow back to the local entities shows no sign of changing.

Something St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said during that January meeting has resonated throughout this debate: “No one is coming to save us and fix these problems. We have to save ourselves.”

He’s right. We don’t think two new sales taxes that drive the rate past 10 percent are the way to do it, though.

The law enforcement sales tax would generate $22 million, but three-quarters of that money go to law enforcement functions under St. Clair County’s umbrella.

County leaders have failed to gain our trust regarding priorities. They prioritize subsidizing MidAmerica Airport with $81 million without accepting the responsibility for their actions. Promises to keep their hands off this new money and not replace it ring hollow: The problem isn’t siphoning new money, the problem is the money was already taken. Plus, Chairman Mark Kern ducked repeated opportunities to explain the airport’s role in bringing us to this point. He refused to personally promise the county won’t play three-card Monte with the funding by “legally” shifting costs or how the “law” would be enforced to guard against funding reductions to law enforcement.

There is an obvious need to fix the county jail. The liability issues in the aging, cramped facility are frightening.

Probation officers are key to keeping the public safe from the criminals that the jail is too small to contain. They are vastly understaffed and the state’s refusal to honor its funding obligations to them is maddening.

Asking a few patrol deputies to run from Caseyville to St. Libory is inefficient and dangerous. There is no reasonable expectation of crime prevention and a real possibility that crime reaction will be too late to matter.

These issues need to be fixed. We already paid taxes for these services. County leaders need to grow up and make tough decisions about their mandate for public safety over flying in fresh fruit or providing cheap vacations to Florida.

The school sales tax also is expected to generate $22 million. It would fix schools, help retire debt and build needed classrooms.

Again, there are real needs in the schools, from crowding in Smithton to bad school roofs in Belleville. The districts worked hard to show how the sales tax would be used to abate property taxes.

To be honest, our opposition to a 1-cent sales tax for the schools is lukewarm as a result of their promises. The opposition is more philosophical, related to the fact that enough taxation is enough and that the needs they cite should force examination of how schools do business.

School district consolidation and revisions in pension policy could go a long way towards putting more money in the classroom.

But beyond that, the biggest concern that remains unanswered for both taxes is what having the highest sales tax in the region and one of the highest in the state will do to our local merchants. It certainly will not put them at a competitive advantage, and just how much it will drive away sales is a scary unknown.

We care deeply about our local law enforcement and schools. We just don’t think these sales taxes are the best path forward.