Several school districts in Whiteside County have compelling facilities needs: leaking roofs, crumbling pavement, and aging fixtures.
Many also carry hundreds of thousands of dollars in building-improvement debt for which they levy property taxes to pay it off.
On April 9, school officials again are asking voters to support a 1 percentage-point sales tax increase for school facilities – the third such vote since November 2008.
“In the last attempt ... it was [defeated by] a slim margin ... which means there are a significant number of people who support this option,” Sterling Superintendent Tad Everett said. “We’re asking for it because we need it. These are not facility wants, but facility needs.”
Rock Falls Elementary Superintendent Dan Arickx agreed.
“Instead of local property taxpayers paying for all these repairs that come across every district, every building, ... [the sales tax] allows other people to pay for them, too,” Arickx said.
If voters approve the increase, each school district would get a proportion of the annual county sales tax revenue based on its share of overall county enrollment, regardless of whether the district supported the measure.
The Sterling schools could receive more than $1.5 million a year. The Morrison schools could get more than $550,000. Rock Falls High School, one of the two districts that did not support the referendum, could receive almost $300,000.
Each district could use its share of money to construct new buildings or add on to or renovate existing buildings; make facilities handicapped accessible; or repair parking lots and sidewalks, aging roofs and boilers, among other improvements.
A district also could use the money to abate property taxes levied to pay off existing construction bonds.
Many school districts in Whiteside County plan to use the money for both facilities improvements and property tax relief.
They say tax relief is “the wise thing and the fair thing to do” because it takes some of the burden off local property taxpayers and spreads it to those who spend money in the county, regardless of whether they live here, Morrison Superintendent Suellen Girard said.
They also believe facilities needs cannot be ignored, because “these buildings don’t get younger; they only get older,” and require more care to keep them safe and functional, Arickx said.
If voters deny the increase, as they have twice before, districts would continue to issue health/life/safety bonds and levy property taxes to pay for building improvements.
No formal support groups have advocated for the tax. All but two school districts back the tax, and the Whiteside County Farm Bureau even threw its support behind it.
“We were very hesitant to do anything to increase taxes,” Don Temple, president of the Farm Bureau, said in a news release. “But we felt that a 1-percent ... sales tax would not only benefit area schools, it would take some of the pressure off property owners.”
No formal opposition groups have campaigned against the tax, although some people in the community have come out against it.
District officials know they have a challenge before them. But they argue that the tax takes the burden off property taxpayers and spreads at least some of the responsibility among residents and visitors alike, who contribute to the tax base every time they spend money in Whiteside County.
“It does not put the onus entirely on the residents of this community,” Everett said. “I know tax is a four-letter word lately, but it’s a better financial option for the local community when you look at property tax vs. sales tax. It’s a shared responsibility for revenue.”
In April 2009, county voters rejected the referendum, 55 percent to 45 percent. The time before that, in November 2008, voters denied it, 58 percent to 42 percent.
Where the money would be spent
Here is how some districts would use their share of sales tax revenue if voters approve the measure April 9. Annual amounts are based on the percentage of county students each district has:
Sterling (36 percent, $1,524,457): The district would use about 20 percent to 25 percent of its sales tax revenue to lower property taxes and the rest to improve school facilities.
It would repair roofs on several buildings, replace gutters, repave parking lots and sidewalks, resurface playgrounds, remove asbestos tile and carpet, resurface gym floors and replace drinking fountains, toilets and other fixtures.
Go to www.sterlingpublicschools.org/district/supt/sup_sales.htm for more information.
Morrison (13.2 percent, $561,040): The district would use at least half its sales tax revenue to lower property taxes and the rest to improve school facilities.
It would repair roofs, address parking needs at Northside Elementary School, and improve school safety.
Rock Falls Elementary (13 percent, $549,600): The district would use about 40 percent of its sales tax revenue to lower property taxes and the rest to improve school facilities.
It would repave parking lots and repair sidewalks, repair fences, repair roofs on several buildings, renovate bathrooms, and improve school safety, including altering building entrances and possibly installing video surveillance.
Rock Falls High School (7 percent, $294,963): The district, even though it did not back the tax, likely would use its sales tax revenue to improve school facilities; the school board has not yet discussed its plans, though.
Other schools’ shares
River Bend (Fulton): 11.7 percent, $494,392
Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico: 9.9 percent, 420,739
Montmorency: 3.4 percent, $144,157
East Coloma: 2.8 percent, $118,873
Erie: 1.9 percent, $82,004
Source: Stifel, Nicolaus and Co.
The school facilities tax, if approved, would not be levied on all retail merchandise. Items exempt from the tax include vehicles, boats and RVs; mobile homes; farm equipment, parts and inputs; unprepared food, such as bananas, milk and bread; and drugs, including over-the-counter medications and vitamins.
Here's what a few everyday purchases cost now, including the 6.75 percent sales tax in Whiteside County, and how much their cost would rise with a 1-percentage-point tax increase:
– A Quarter Pounder with Cheese Extra Value Meal at McDonald's: $5.54 to $5.59, a 5-cent increase.
– A pair of Levi's jeans at J.C. Penney: $39.50 to $39.87, a 37-cent increase.
– A 32-inch Samsung LCD HDTV at Walmart: $351.21 to $354.50, a $3.29 increase.