Council favors rise in sales tax
Increasing rate to 9% would provide $2.8 million each year to shore up police, fire, library
CHAMPAIGN — All but one city council member said Tuesday night that they want to use a sales-tax increase to raise the money needed to restore staffing levels at the police and fire departments and avoid a reduction in hours at the Champaign Public Library.
A quarter-percentage-point increase would bring the sales-tax rate to 9 percent and raise $2.8 million annually in new money for the city. Council members say the revenue is sorely needed to start bringing service levels back to where they were before the recession.
They had already decided to give an extra $1.7 million to those departments during a May 14 straw poll, and they have yet to decide what to do with the extra revenue that would be left over. The $1.7 million would pay for six new police officers — bringing the department back to its pre-recession staffing level — keep the library on its current schedule, and fund firefighter overtime necessary to avoid losing an engine on the city's west side.
"I think most of the community think that they are necessary expenditures for serious government functions," said council member Tom Bruno. "Police, fire and library — that's what municipalities do."
Assuming the city council later confirms its decision after Tuesday night's 8-1 straw poll, the new sales tax likely would go into effect Jan. 1, per state rules. Because of lag time in how the tax is collected and paid to the city, Champaign would not start seeing the revenue bump until May 2014.
All of the spending decisions city officials have made to this point could be confirmed on June 4 when they vote on next year's budget. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
Deborah Frank Feinen, the only council member to vote against the increase, said she is concerned that there was not enough effort to look elsewhere in the budget for cuts before tax raises, as city officials had done in the recession years.
"I don't see a will at this point from anybody to actually sit down and try to prioritize and see if there is a way to live within our means," Feinen said.
Council member Marci Dodds said she does "take issue with the notion that we haven't done our due diligence." She said the city council made painful cuts in the past five years totaling millions of dollars, and there's nothing left to trim.
"I am clear and comfortable that, while nobody wants this and while we would all like to have magic occur, it's not there anymore," Dodds said. "It really wasn't there five years ago, it definitely wasn't there last year and it's not here now."
Mayor Don Gerard said Champaign is in the midst of a "construction boom," and the city needs to bolster its services while it can. Now is the time to make the "investment" in basic city services, he said.
"We need the police officers, we need the fire now," Gerard said.
City council members had a debate about their options for raising new revenue — other taxes like the food-and-beverage tax, hotel-motel tax and package liquor tax were all on the table — but the thought of tax increases was met with little resistance from audience members. Some council members said they were pained by the idea of raising expenses for Champaign residents, but they saw it as necessary to provide essential city services.
Earlier in the night, City Manager Dorothy David said the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce had submitted their input in writing before the meeting. No one from the chamber made public comment during Tuesday night's meeting.
Bruno characterized the content of that letter as "not so fast, don't do this tonight," and he said that was not very helpful.
"We've been giving it thought from days and weeks leading up to this Tuesday night," Bruno said.
Bruno said that "there has been a pattern over the past two or three years that we get an emailed letter from the Chamber of Commerce" only hours before a vote or a straw poll is scheduled.
"It's not good advocacy for their cause, and it's not helpful in this deliberative process," he said.
Raising the city-only sales tax from 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent would put Champaign's share of the tax roughly on par with most comparable central Illinois cities.
But the city's total sales tax — which includes all the sales taxes charged by the state and school district — would be near the top of the list at 9 percent. Only Decatur (9 percent) and a special taxing district in Peoria (9.25 percent) would be as high or higher.