All systems go for tax increase

All systems go for tax increase

An effort to force the Champaign school district to put a planned property tax hike before voters has fallen short.

Thirty days ago, Don Kermath said he didn't know any better than to be confident that he and some like-minded associates could gather the roughly 6,000 signatures necessary to put a planned school district property tax hike to a public vote.

Now he does, and it's a hard lesson learned.

"If I had it to do over again, I would spend more time raising money and hiring (petition) circulators," said Kermath.

In the end, Kermath and his associates collected more than 2,000 signatures, a substantial number but well short of what was required to force the referendum.

That shortfall means that the school board can proceed to levy a property tax hike of roughly $25 a year for a $150,000 house. But if it does, board members may very well be laying the groundwork for defeat when — in a year or two or three — they ask voters to approve a big tax hike to build a new high school.

There is some indication that board members may be rethinking their decision to impose the property tax hike. Board member Thomas Lockman Jr. said he and his colleagues will discuss the issue again at an April 9 meeting.

He said they already have "talked at length about it" but acknowledged "there is a lot of confusion" over $83 million in school improvements currently being financed by new sales tax revenues and the district's plans to make another $14.5 million in improvements with revenue from the planned property tax increase.

Here's the problem, in our view, with the school district's property tax increase plan.

For starters, the school board is raising the money under a statutory provision for "working cash funds." The district's plan, in fact, has nothing to do with working cash. Board members are just taking advantage of a legislative loophole designed to allow school boards across the state to increase property taxes beyond their prescribed limit without voter approval.

Taxpayers are being had, and, to the extent they realize it, most of them don't like it.

Further, state legislators knew some people would object to this new tax provision, and they cynically adopted rules designed to restrict the ability of critics to take meaningful action. The law required Kermath to collect 6,000 signatures within 30 days, far less than candidates for public office are required to collect to win a spot on the ballot. This kind of electoral duplicity is another example of how our state legislators actively work against the interests of the people who elect them.

There's another issue, this one local.

School board members may not want to acknowledge it, but they agreed, in effect, to trade property tax revenue for sales tax revenue during the 2009 campaign to pass the 1-cent sales tax for education. During that campaign, all school districts in Champaign County, acting at the behest of county board member Al Nudo, promised to pay off their outstanding bonds financed by property taxes if the sales tax was approved.

The new sales tax revenues have proved to be a windfall for the Champaign school district, funding $83 million in bonds for school improvements. But now that the sales tax revenue is safely in hand, the school district wants to levy more property taxes without voter consent.

Members of an elected board, like the school board, obviously cannot bind the members of a future board. So as far as trading the property tax for the sales tax, current board members may dismiss that agreement at their will. But voters may not take kindly to this kind of political subterfuge.

As for the school district's improvement plans, isn't the current $83 million in improvement projects enough? Business manager Gene Logas has defended the desire for an additional $14.5 million, citing the need for air conditioning in some schools. But if air conditioning is as crucial as Logas claims, why wasn't it included in the initial package?

Frankly, the board's action feeds the stereotype that most taxing bodies, however flush they may be, can never get enough taxpayer dollars in hand.

Board members need to think seriously about the ramifications of their working cash fund property tax. It has bad faith written all over it.

Although Kermath's group was unable to collect the necessary number of signatures, he said the problem was caused by not having enough people to pass petitions, not unwillingness of people to sign.

"I had petition signers tell me that almost no one said no to them," Kermath said.

That attitude reflects serious opposition and resentment to what the school district has proposed. Under the law, they are free to proceed, but not without risk to the district's future harmony on improvements to the schools.

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