Champaign County chamber not taking side on sales tax for schools

Champaign County chamber not taking side on sales tax for schools

CHAMPAIGN – The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce won't support or oppose the school sales-tax proposal on Tuesday's ballot.

In a statement to its members, chamber officials said the decision was made because its membership is "clearly divided" on how to pay for school-facilities needs, and many were undecided on the issue.

"This is not a neutral position. It is a position of respect for the differing opinions of the business community on this issue," the statement reads.

The ballot question asks whether voters approve a 1-percent sales tax to pay for school facilities needs, including construction, renovations, energy-efficiency work, life safety work, and paying off existing building bond debt.

The statement says the role of the chamber's board is to assess where its membership stands on an issue and then develop positions based on the desire of the membership, and the chamber polled its members twice on the sales tax issue.

The chamber supports lessening the reliance on property taxes to pay for the school system, but voters need to decide if the sales tax is the right way to accomplish this, according to the statement.

It also offers a list of pros and cons of the tax.

Among the pros: the tax would provide a guaranteed funding stream for ongoing maintenance needs currently paid for by property taxes; there is a potential decrease in property taxes; it may help schools become more energy-efficient; and it may help solve maintenance issues and thus lessen the need for schools to seek a tax increase through future referendums.

Among the cons: the proposal is a tax increase, not a tax swap, as property tax abatements are not guaranteed; there is no adequate sunset provision in the legislation, so the additional sales tax will be in place indefinitely; and it does not solve all the capital needs of school districts, which will still seek future property tax referendums for large-scale projects.

Two other area chambers of commerce, in Rantoul and Mahomet, are supporting the sales-tax proposal.

"Our board felt it's something so important to our schools, to be able to capture these dollars coming in primarily to the Champaign-Urbana area," said Chris Kaler, the executive director of the Rantoul Area Chamber of Commerce. "The only other way we'd be able to get (revenue) to retire bonds or make improvements to schools ... we'd never be able to get these dollars without raising taxes on the property owners."

The Mahomet Area Chamber of Commerce allowed its members to vote at its last board meeting.

"I wasn't comfortable with the board just taking a position," said board Chairman Brooks Marsh.

About a third of the 95 members were at the meeting, he said. They asked for a secret ballot, then voted unanimously in favor of supporting the sales tax.

"I think in Mahomet, there is general pride in the strength of our schools," Marsh said. "There's a feeling that's one of the strengths of our community that we don't want to lose."

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