It’s deja vu all over again.
Voters in Whiteside and Carroll counties will be asked Tuesday whether they want a 1 percent sales tax to be imposed for schools to use for facilities maintenance, upgrades and construction.
Supporters say the money is needed to offset declining state aid and to reduce property taxes; opponents aren’t happy with the idea of another tax being levied in tough economic times.
In Whiteside County, the tax would bring a projected $4.3 million a year to be divided among 10 school districts. If passed in Carroll County, $1.1 million would go to three districts.
All districts would split the money based on enrollment.
The question has been defeated by Whiteside County voters three times, but has gained support each time – 42 percent in November 2008, 45 percent in April 2009, and 46 percent this past April.
Rock Falls High School Superintendent Ron McCord is optimistic.
“I think people people are starting to get that this is a benefit, this is a good idea,” McCord said. “For me, what’s most important is that we get the word out that this is a shift away from property taxes. It’s just a new way at looking at how to fund our schools.”
Mount Carroll Alderman Bob Sisler isn’t buying that argument, the Carroll County Mirror Democrat reported.
“I like the idea of a secure revenue source,” Sisler said at the Feb. 25 city council meeting, where Milledgeville Superintendent Tim Schurman made a pitch for the council’s support.
“But I think it is somewhat deceptive to suggest it’s going to automatically provide relief to property taxes. [School districts] are still going to spend all the money they get [from property taxes] in addition to what they get here. I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve never seen anything reduce property taxes.”
Sisler also said the property tax rate might go down, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean property taxes would decrease, if, for instance, the assessed value of property in the county went up.
The 1 percent school facilities tax would add $10 in tax for every $1,000 spent on certain items, such as fuel, restaurant meals and prepared food – items often bought by visitors to a county, taking some of the burden of paying for schools off residents, supporters note.
The money could be used only for capital facilities projects – new facilities, additions and renovations, land acquisition, ongoing maintenance, architectural planning, durable equipment (nonmoveable items), fire prevention and life safety, disabled access and security, energy efficiency, parking lots, demolition, and roof repairs.
School districts also can use the money to reduce or pay off existing facilities bonds – 20-year loans taken out for such purposes – which would reduce property taxes now being used to make payments on those bonds.
The tax revenue could not be used to pay for salaries or benefits, operating expenses, buses, and the like.
The new tax would be charged on retail purchases except for cars, trucks, and all-terrain vehicles, boats and recreational vehicles, mobile homes, groceries, drugs (including over the counter medications and vitamins), farm equipment and parts, and farm inputs.
Dan Arickx, superintendent of the Rock Falls Elementary district, noted recently that if voters had passed the school sales tax in April, his district would have eliminated its property tax dedicated to correcting health, life and safety issues in buildings. Overall, that would amount to a 14 percent reduction in the property tax for the Rock Falls Elementary district.
Property taxes in the West Carroll School District could be cut 5 percent to 7 percent, Superintendent Craig Mathers says on his district’s website. That means homeowners who pay $1,000 in property taxes to the school could see a $50 to $70 decrease in their tax bills.
More important, Mathers noted, it could reduce or stop future tax increases on bond sales, a process that results in paying funds equal to three to four times the actual project cost because of the 20 years of interest.
Amanda Norris, a member of the fiscally conservative Sauk Valley Tea Party, wishes school and other officials would stop levying more taxes and find other ways, like cutting costs, to raise the money.
“Any time that they have something else that needs attention, they seem to always want to go back to the taxpayers for more money,” Norris said. “It’s easier than reworking things and trying to find the funds elsewhere.
“I don’t think they see that we’re getting hit every time we turn around. ... The economy’s not improving, but food prices are going up, gas prices are going up, and for some people, they just don’t have any extra money to get taxed higher and higher for things like this.”
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 how a few everyday purchases would rise with a 1 percent sales tax increase:
It would add:
• 7 cents to a $7 meal at a fast food restaurant
• 30 cents to a $30 restaurant meal
• 50 cents to a $50 gasoline purchase
• $4.50 to a $450 TV
The Rock Falls High School website has links to a wide variety of information on the sales tax initiative, www.rfhs301.org.