URBANA — Champaign County Board member Pattsi Petrie is suggesting doubling the county's quarter-cent public safety sales tax to pay for criminal justice system reforms contained in reports by a jail consultant and a community justice task force.
The Champaign Democrat wants to put the proposal on the March 2014, primary election ballot. She unveiled the idea at Thursday night's Democratic caucus meeting held before the regular county board meeting.
The idea got a relatively cool response from the board's majority Democrats, who likely would have to provide most of the votes to get the issue on the ballot.
"Right now I would be opposed to it," said board Chair Al Kurtz. "I haven't heard any good arguments for it, and I'm certainly not going to tell my constituents that I'm going to double their taxes."
Veteran board member Lorraine Cowart said she "would never support it."
And Urbana Democrat Ralph Langenheim said passing the tax increase would be "a big job" and "you've got to get everybody behind it. I seriously doubt if you could achieve that sort of cooperation in an election year, especially an election year like this one."
But two Urbana Democrats, Chris Alix and James Quisenberry, suggested the tax increase vote could be beneficial.
"I would argue that increasing the public safety sales tax — although I'm not going to come out for it or against it at this point — would provide additional funds to address the kind of short-term needs we're talking about and ultimately may provide the opportunity to relieve taxes in other areas," including property taxes, said Alix.
Quisenberry said a tax increase vote would help determine the level of support that advocates for local criminal justice reforms have in the county.
"I'm not going to come out for or against it, but I do appreciate the opportunity to let the public weigh in on these things," he said. "It is an opportunity for the public to show their support for the local group that has been talking to us all this time about how they want to see things handled."
Although Republicans were not aware of Petrie's proposal and did not discuss it at their caucus meeting Thursday, GOP leader John Jay said he didn't think it would get much support.
"We're already going to have some tough decisions to make as a board," said the Mahomet Republican. "I wasn't thinking about asking for more money. I was thinking about working with what we already have."
The proposal comes at an opportune time, as county board members are scheduled to have a study session at 6 p.m. Tuesday on a 272-page criminal justice system assessment report performed for the county by the Institute for Law & Public Policy Planning.
Petrie told her Democratic colleagues "we need to be thinking strategically and long term."
She noted that other tax increase votes "are on the horizon," including those for Champaign schools, and possibly for the county nursing home and one to create an airport authority.
"We have to look at the much larger picture," she said. "I want this out for a conversation among the county board members because we have these programs that are being suggested to us by the two reports (one from the Institute for Law & Public Policy Planning, available here and the other from a community justice task force, available here), and the present state of the county board budget doesn't have any flexibility to address these programs."
The current quarter-cent public safety tax generates about $4.5 million annually, and its revenue primarily pays off the bonds used to build the expanded county courthouse and a new juvenile detention center. Other funds have gone to cover utility costs, for delinquency prevention grants, for software maintenance of the courts technology system and for other technology needs.
The community justice task force had suggested that a much greater share — up to 30 percent — of the $4.5 million should go to restorative justice programs.
But Petrie said she believed the county board would continue to spend most of the $4.5 million on facilities maintenance and improvements.
"My bet is it's going to be bricks and mortar and once the bricks and mortar is spent there will be nothing else," she said. "The window of opportunity to do this is going to pass, if you look at the long term."
Petrie stressed that she would want to see the additional public safety sales tax money devoted to programs, such as those fighting recidivism and for mental health counseling and facilities.