Guest commentary: When enough is way more than enough
By DANNEL McCOLLUM
The Champaign City Council has established a new revenue source to make up for shortfalls largely related to the recession. Of course, that raises several questions:
When times are bad, is the answer to continue to spend at former levels or is it prudent to spend less? And if good times return in the future, do the new taxes then go away?
Silly question. The current justifications are perceived needs in areas of public safety and the public library. To be sure, the city has cut back, but the new revenue source is an increase in an already high sales tax that hits lower income folks the hardest.
And there is more! The sales tax increase provides considerably more revenue than the immediately perceived needs. But will that money be saved? Likely not, since there area always more needs when there is more money to spend.
Adding to the burden on local taxpayers, the Illinois General Assembly has not held in check its predisposition to impose unfunded mandates on local governments. This includes benefits for public sector unions that will eventually render even prudent municipalities unable to provide adequate services.
As I often said at meetings of the Illinois Municipal League, every minute the General Assembly is in session, the public is at risk. Looking back today, little did I know then how high the risk really was.
The Champaign Public Library has of late been shameless in its lobbying for more funds. In practice, the library is subsidiary of the city government. However, the only function of the latter is to pony up the funds, without any authority to determine how those funds are spent.
Would the library, like Urbana, consider putting parking meters on its cavernous lot so that patrons could help pay for the many benefits they receive? Or would the threatened cutting back of hours and services have been too great a burden for the reading public to bear to be more prudent with city funds?
But the council is not the only public body that seems determined to unnecessarily spend the public's money. Talk about federal and state mandates: Imagine what the schools have to spend absent these imposed obligations without supportive funding!
That adds to the big property tax bite at the local level with the school district walking away with more than half of the property tax bill.
Adding to the load is the school board's push to raise revenues with working cash bonds, without a referendum.
But wait, there is more! The board is determined in coming years to push for a new, second high school, located who knows where, the cost approaching $100 million. All because Champaign Central High does not have the bells and whistles that Centennial has. Planned improvements to existing buildings will likely add nearly that much more. All this will have to be supported by bond issues should the voters spring for them.
No serious consideration was given to the suggestion that the Central High building be converted to ninth and 10th grades, saving a fine, centrally located building and eliminating student parking problems.
(As for additional space, the district could have had the former YMCA building barely more than a block distant for less than $500,000.)
Then Centennial could handle the 11th and 12th grades with its athletic facilities, parking lot, etc. It is just a thought that failed to attract the attention of the board.
Public bodies seem to possess an innate and infinite ability to find more and costly needs on which to spend tons of money, without considering impacts on the public. It is not that we are not willing to support efforts to address our needs, but we would appreciate consideration of the most efficient and prudent ways to do this.
Dannel McCollum, a former Champaign mayor and a 2002 Democratic candidate for the Illinois Senate, is a historian and a freelance writer.