PEKIN — In 2000, under threat of forced state action, Tazewell County voters finally approved a sales tax increase to pay for a new county jail. The $17 million building was paid off in 2011, but the half-cent public safety sales tax added to most goods purchased in the county continues to be collected.
For two main reasons, according to county officials:
Nobody ever said the tax would be retired when the building was paid off, said Tazewell County Board Chairman David Zimmerman in a recent interview in his office on the top floor of the renovated old jail building. And, the county just plain needs the money, he said.
"We absolutely need (the sales tax revenue)," Zimmerman said. "If you took away the half-cent (tax) it would be a catastrophe. It's 20 percent of our general revenue."
Enter East Peoria Commissioner Dan Decker, a third-term member of the city's five-person City Council. Decker has occasionally raised questions in public about the public safety tax, even though dismissal of the tax is not Decker's crusade. In fact, he does not expect that to happen.
Decker, a firefighter with the East Peoria Fire Department, is the most genial and gentle critic imaginable. He lavishes praise on the services the Tazewell County Sheriff's Office performs. In theory, he supports sales tax increases as revenue streams because they spread the burden around and offer consumers a choice to not shop where they have to pay extra. He rarely rouses rabble.
But when it comes to the public safety sales tax, let's just say he has questions. And he is not alone.
"Logic would tell me that the math in the explanation (of continuing the tax) does not add up," Decker said this week. "It just doesn't."
The tax has raised an average of $5.9 million in each of the 15 years it has been collected, according to Tazewell County Administrator Wendy Ferrill. It is estimated to raise $6.4 million next year. From 2002 to 2011 the county was obligated to make annual payments of around $2 million a year to pay off the bond. That means in 2011 it made its final $2 million payment, and in 2012 it was free of the obligation. If the sales tax revenues are necessary to manage, maintain and operate the expanded Justice Center — the cornerstone of the county's position on the need to continue to collect the tax — how was it able to keep up with the bills in the previous years when $2 million payments were being made on the bonds?
"That's what I don't understand," Decker said.
The Tazewell County sheriff's annual budget has grown significantly since the public safety tax was approved. It was $3.5 million in 2000; $4.9 million in 2002, the first year the Justice Center was in the county budget; $7.4 million in 2011, the last year of the $2 million bond payment; $7.6 million in 2012, the first year free of the bond payment; and $8.7 million in 2016. The budget to maintain the Justice Center — which includes items like court security and building maintenance — is more than $12 million a year.
Expanded facilities meant expanded budgets.
"We had to add a kitchen, laundry services, significantly more beds, more square feet to heat and cool, control room technologies and electronics that need to be purchased and maintained," Zimmerman said. "I think the list (of what was added) could go on and on."
Administrator Ferrill put it this way:
"The County Board was upfront with the taxpayers regarding the fact that this tax was never intended to be retired. The board was very clear with the taxpayers that the tax would be used to address the ongoing costs of staffing and maintaining the jail, as well as addressing other Public Safety issues within the county," she said. "The County Board also provided property tax relief of $1 million to residents of Tazewell County's property tax levy following passage of the public safety sales tax by the voters."
Decker first looked into the possibility of the county retiring the public safety tax for parochial reasons. He has for years supported a half-cent sales tax in East Peoria to help cover a widening deficit in the city's budget brought on by declining revenues and changes in the state's assistance to communities brought on by its own fiscal crisis. Decker thought eliminating the county public safety tax might get the East Peoria City Council to pass a half-cent sales tax increase of its own. Currently only Decker and Commissioner Tim Jeffers support the city sales tax increase. It needs one more vote to be enacted.
"That was absolutely part of my thinking," Decker said. "Now I'm just hopeful that the county will pick up some of the financial burdens that communities are facing."
His new hope is that the county absorbs the costs of upcoming state-mandated consolidation of the county's emergency dispatch system. Four dispatch centers in Tazewell County — in Morton, Washington, East Peoria and the TazCom Center in Pekin — will be reduced to two. Washington and East Peoria are losing their dispatch centers in the consolidation. Once in place, the cost of two centers will be borne by the communities based on the percentage of calls. The cost of the transition is not currently known.
"No one knows what all of that is going to cost," Decker said. "It seems to me it would be a perfect use of public safety sales tax money."
Further evidence that the county has neither the will or the wherewithal to retire the public safety tax is in action the board took this week. It approved placing a referendum on the ballot in the spring asking voters to agree to raise their own property taxes by 30 percent.
As a tax cap taxing district, the county must by law let voters decide on a property tax increase of more than the cost of living increase or 1 percent, whichever figure is smaller. If approved, it would be the first property tax increase in Tazewell County in 15 years. Currently, Tazewell County has the second lowest tax rate in the state.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.