TUSCOLA — Shoppers could pay more for items they buy in Douglas County if a countywide ballot question is approved on April 9.
Voters are being asked to approve a 1 percent sales tax to help school districts pay for building improvements and pay off construction debt.
While the school districts aren't making specific promises for property tax reductions as was done for a similar sales tax approved in Champaign County, the school districts have pledged to use at least some of the tax money for bond abatement, according to Arcola schools Superintendent Jean Chrostoski
"When you talk about bond abatement, you are talking about a property tax reduction because you are going to abate the payment," Chrostoski said. "It could also mean paying off a debt early.
"All the school districts intend to use the tax money for some sort of bond abatement, but we can never promise anything for sure. But every district came up with their priorities for the use of the tax money, and all of them include bond abatement."
The question is worded as follows: "Shall a retailers' occupation tax and a service occupation tax (commonly referred to as a 'sales tax') be imposed in The County of Douglas, Illinois, at a rate of 1% to be used exclusively for school facility purposes?"
The effect of the proposed tax will be different in Tuscola from the rest of the county since the Tuscola City Council, using its home rule powers, enacted a half-cent sales tax that went into effect in July 2012 to benefit the Tuscola school district.
Tuscola City Treasurer Alta Long said that tax has generated $286,152 during its first six months of operation.
Under the terms of the agreement establishing the Tuscola tax, the half-cent tax in Tuscola would go away if a countywide ballot question were passed, since the schools would be getting money from the new 1 percent sales tax.
"If a county sales tax is implemented, the city home rule sales tax is eliminated," said Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc.
If the ballot question passes, the cost of a $20 shirt purchased in the county would increase by 20 cents, a $16 DVD by 16 cents and a $200 piece of furniture by $2.
Money would be distributed to school districts based on enrollment.
Villa Grove school Superintendent Steven Poznic estimates the tax would bring an additional $344,000 a year to his school district.
Poznic said the district would like to use that money to pay for building improvements.
"We have a need for a new roof on the school building, and we would like to improve the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems," Poznic said.
Arcola schools anticipate getting even more money, according to Chrostoski.
She estimates, based on enrollment and recent sales numbers, that the tax would bring Arcola schools an additional $390,000 a year.
Chrostoski said the money would be used for a parking lot project, the installation of an elevator to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, roof repairs and the abatement of $2.4 million of bonds previously issued by the district.
"The sales tax comes from the entire county, so we all win from that," she said.
Mark Spainhour, executive director of the Arcola Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber's board of directors voted to endorse approving the ballot question.
"I think it has a number of benefits," he said. "The state of Illinois is not paying its bills, so we need alternative forms of funding. This is one of the answers that will help out the schools.
"This will put the burden of the payment not just on property owners, but on all citizens, and people traveling through Douglas County and buying things here will be supporting our schools as well."
The issue isn't quite as clear cut in Tuscola, however, since Tuscola schools would be replacing 100 percent of a half-cent sales tax with Tuscola's portion of a countywide 1 percent sales tax.
Tuscola schools Superintendent Michael Smith estimates his district will receive about the same amount of money from the 1 percent sales tax that it now gets from the half-cent sales tax.
"Our income will be about the same," Smith said. "So we would be asking Tuscola residents who shop here to pay twice as much money for the same amount of benefits.
"We told the other school districts that, if they wanted to pursue this, there is nothing we could do to stand in their way. But the overall feeling in Tuscola is to vote against it."
Smith said his district plans on spending its sales tax money to pay for a new roof for East Prairie Middle School.
"We're hoping to save the money first and then pay for the roof as we go," he said.
Moody said that Tuscola Economic Development Inc. has not taken a position on the ballot question so far.
"We will be talking to our contributors to see if they want to take a position," Moody said.