County puts sales tax increase on April ballot

Nick Stroman

Superintendents and board members in Tazewell County school districts have been working overtime to educate voters about a sales tax referendum on the April ballot which could generate a windfall of more than $11 million throughout the county.

The one-cent school facility sales tax would be applied to the same tax base as the public safety tax.

Proceeds of the tax can only be used for facility-related expenditures, and almost every district in Tazewell County has facility issues, including East Peoria, Morton and Washington.

Tax proceeds could also be used to support bonds or to abate tax levies for payments of bonds that will be or have been issued for qualifying expenditures.

The county’s total student population is 19,580. At least 51 percent of the county’s school boards had to adopt resolutions to get the referendum placed on next month’s ballot.

Cliff Cobert, superintendent of East Peoria Community High School District 309, said a group of superintendents have put together a basic format for a flyer to send out to voters.

“Each district has tweaked it a bit for projects they have on the burner and what we would use it for,” Cobert said.

The EPCHS board approved its resolution last December after Rob Houchin, regional superintendent of schools, met with superintendents to explain the law and gauge interest.

Although the high school is already in the midst of a major building renovation project, Cobert said there are several facility concerns that will not be addressed, such as windows, tuck pointing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

If the referendum passes, District 309 is estimated to receive $684,000 per year based on current county-wide sales tax receipts and student enrollments.

Cobert said the high school will host a town meeting at 6:30 p.m. March 25 to distribute information regarding the county sales tax.

“People can ask questions at this meeting and we will tell them all about what the referendum is and what it can be used for,” Cobert said.

Tim Custis, vice president of Washington Community High School District 308 school board, said board members have been canvassing the city by going door to door and to club meetings to get the word out about both referendums affecting the district.

District 308 is also trying to win support for a referendum to support an $18.4 million plan to renovate the high school.

“We are tying the sales tax issue in with our building project, with the intention of telling people to vote for both because it could be a relief to their property taxes from the renovation issues,” Custis said.

If the building project referendum passes, persons owning a $100,000 home in Washington would pay an extra $85.73 annually in property taxes.

“If both issues pass, we use money from the sales tax to abate off bonds for the building project. If the building referendum fails and sales tax passes, we use that money for needed building maintenance,” Custis added.

Eligible school capital projects for the sales tax money include new facilities, renovations, energy projects, bond retirement, life safety work and disability access.

Custis said public tours of the aged WCHS building have also proved successful in hammering home the points of both referendums for the voters.

Two more tours are scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Monday and at 5:30 p.m. March 30.

Custis said the March 30 tour will also include a final plea for the referendums during a “meet the candidates” night.

Roger Kilpatrick, superintendent of Morton District 709 schools, said although the school board did not pass the resolution to support the referendum, his administration has still committed to supporting the sales tax.

“We started a long-term facilities plan last fall and that report won’t be out until at least May of this year. When we saw the countywide sale tax issue come up, we couldn’t tell the public what we would do with the money, so we voted not to support it,” Kilpatrick said.

“The timing isn’t what we selected,” Kilpatrick added.

Morton was one of five school districts that did not pass the resolution, along with Rankin, Pekin, Spring Lake and Delavan.

Even if a school district voted not to support the referendum going on the April ballot, it would still receive money if it passes.

Kilpatrick said if the referendum passes and the district receives funding, the board would naturally support the issue.

“Right now, we are racing to try to inform the public about some of the things we might be able to do with the money,” Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick said after evaluating all of their buildings, there are definitely some repair needs existing, and the extra revenue could help them with long-term repair and upgrades.

“Just look at the age of our schools. The oldest is 85 years old and the newest is 35 years old. The high school was built in the 1950s,” Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick said the district has not defined a long-term plan yet, so it cannot define financing methods either.

“We need to bring our schools up to a certain level, but we can’t clearly define our needs. We have needs to make improvements, but it’s just a timing issue. If we can get this passed in this current environment, I think that’s great,” Kilpatrick said.

The sales tax referendum is modeled after a similar law in Iowa, which was so successful it is now a statewide mandate.

East Peoria City administrator Tom Brimberry explained the sales tax.

“When someone buys something retail in Illinois, they pay 6 cents on every dollar — 5 cents goes to the state and 1 cent goes to the city where the purchase occurred.

“In addition now, East Peoria, like many communities, have added on to this 1 cent and we have 2.25 cents that comes to the city (.25 going to public building fund for schools, etc.)

“Tazewell County has passed a .50 sales tax (half-cent on every dollar) throughout the county plus a .25 sales tax for building and operating the jail. This totals 8 cents on every dollar. It is the same in Washington, Pekin, East Peoria and Peoria.

“If the referendum passes, the county decides if the sales tax to schools is between .25-1.00 (quarter cent up to 1 cent per dollar of retail purchased),” Brimberry said.

Washington’s current sales tax for general merchandise is 8 percent, so if the county approved a 1 cent hike, the sales tax would increase to 9 percent.