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Local

Mayor joins council to pass tax levy; vote takes a close shave off Sterling taxpayers' bills

STERLING – It’s not every meeting in which the city’s mayor has to cast a vote, but with two aldermen absent, Skip Lee stepped in Monday night to cast his on the tax levy.

The result: A slim decrease – less than 20 cents a month for some people – in the city’s portion of taxpayers’ bills.

The City Council voted 4-1 to approve a staff-recommended tax levy of $4.72 million, an increase of $135,704, or 2.95 percent, over last year. The proposal assumes the city will receive a projected 3.3 percent increase in equalized assessed valuation.

Lee joined council members Retha Elston, John Stauter, and Joseph Martin in voting yes, while Jim Wise voted no. Bob Conklin and Chris Wilen were absent.

Under the plan, the owner of a home valued at $83,300 – the median value for the city – will see a decrease of $2.14 a year in the city’s portion of property taxes.

The levy also will meet actuaries’ recommended contributions to the fire pension fund of $1,159,533, compared to $1,132,888 last year; and $1,137,726 to the police pension fund, versus $1,058,614 last year.

City Manager Scott Shumard has said that the police and fire funds have grown to about 49 percent of the overall levy.

At the Nov. 4 meeting, the council heard another proposal for the levy, worked up by city staff at Wise’s request, in which the fire and police pensions were funded at the minimum level required by state statues. The state is requiring pensions be 90 percent funded by 2040.

Under that plan, the pension funding would have been lowered by a combined $511,462, or a 10.5 percent decrease in the levy, giving owners of a median-valued house a decrease of $84.98 a year, or $7.08 per month, in property taxes.

However, the city’s actuarial firm, Lauterbach and Amen in Warrenville, said that contributing the minimum for 3 years would drive up the city’s required contribution by 52 percent in 2022. By making the full contribution, the city will face only a 5 percent increase.

Before Monday’s vote, Wise motioned to amend the levy, which died for a lack of a second. He also suggested rescheduling the vote to Dec. 18 to give the full council a chance to weigh in.

City Clerk Marie Rombouts said the levy must be filed by Dec. 22 – the Friday after the Dec. 18 meeting.

Wise also asked his fellow council members whether they wanted to comment on their positions before the vote.

Stauter said he didn’t “want to mess with pensions. I’ve lost my own. I’m going to err on the side of what is suggested.”

Elston recalled that years ago, the city had to lay off firefighters and couldn’t get new equipment. “I don’t want to return to that,” she said.

Martin said he appreciated what Wise was proposing, but “this is a debt owed to our employees. It’s not going to go away. If there’s a break on a loan, that still has to be paid later on.”

One possibility Wise suggested was tax caps, and that he’d be willing to do research on them if the council is interested.

“If we just say this is the ceiling, I think property owners would understand more what we’re doing here,” he said.

Lee said he’d had a productive meeting with Wise, and acknowledged the concern over wildly changing tax rates. The city instituted a tax levy increase of 18.76 percent in 2015, as well as a utilities tax.

“Is there a way to build a taxing policy – for example, an 8 percent increase in funds? Can we build a taxing structure that says we’ll have that 8 percent each year? ... There’s interesting ideas there. I just don’t know enough yet. I’m trying to gather more information,” Lee said.

NEXT MEETING

The City Council next meets at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, at City Hall, 212 Third Ave., in the first floor of Council Chambers.

Go to sterling-il.gov or call City Hall at 815-632-6621 for an agenda or more information.

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