CHAMPAIGN — Chamber of Commerce members are upset with a decision this week to raise the city sales tax rate one quarter of a percentage point, and the group's president said it should have been given more time to submit feedback.
Champaign County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Weis said on Thursday that the general public was not given enough time to vet the information presented to the Champaign City Council, and an 8-1 straw poll in favor of the tax increase on Tuesday should have been delayed.
"There's a lot of information to go through, and we really just wanted council to take some time so that organizations like ourself or so the general community would have time to go over the proposal," Weis said.
Most of the council members who voted for the sales tax increase — which brings the total rate from 8.75 to 9 percent — were adamant in their position on Tuesday that they had already spent weeks debating the decision. The city council has spent most of May deliberating over its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, and it voted on May 14 to give an extra $1.7 million to the library and police and fire departments.
Those extra expenses meant city officials had to find more money to pay for them, and the options were outlined in a May 24 memo from city administrators to council members. The straw poll to increase the sales tax rate followed on May 28, and that decision likely will be formalized if council members adopt the budget on June 4.
Weis said that did not give the chamber enough time to field input from its members over the holiday weekend. The chamber sent a letter to council members on the day of the vote asking for more time.
"We have members who are frustrated, we have members who are unhappy, we have members who are still struggling financially," Weis said. "Every single business in this community has had to tighten their belts, and there's the same expectation from our members that government should do the same."
On the night of the vote, council members debated taking more time to look at budget cuts before tax increases. Deborah Frank Feinen, the only council member to vote against the increase, did so because she felt there was little effort put into cutting expenses before looking for new revenue.
Council member Will Kyles, who supported the tax increase, said during the meeting that maybe the council should examine the budget one more time.
"Some council members may feel that we've done that, and I'm just expressing that if there's some more information that's out there, I don't think that's a bad idea to publicly talk about it," Kyles said.
But most of the council disagreed that city officials had not done their due diligence, and the vote proceeded.
"It's a complicated decision, it's a difficult decision, it's an unpleasant decision," said council member Tom Bruno. "But it's not one that we haven't studied thoroughly."
Weis said she plans to continue accepting input from chamber members, and she will still communicate those comments to the city council.
She said that, on top of other government actions during the recession years — for example, a city storm water fee for which bills are now starting to be delivered — the costs add up.
"Maybe isolated, it's not a big deal," Weis said. "But when it's one cent here and two cents here and a quarter cent here, that adds up. We have a lot of businesses here that are not out of the woods yet after the recession. They're still struggling."