A sales tax hike is back on Rockfords radar. The Rockford City Council Finance Committee mulled over Ald. Daniel Conness (D-14) proposed three-quarter cent sales tax increasewhich could generate $12 millionduring its special July 27 meeting. Committee members approved holding a public forum.
Winnebago County Taxpayer Advocates Tim Emert said, during public participation, he wanted to address the referendums timing. Emert said the last time city and school referenda were up at the same time, they both failed: We like the idea that youre getting out of the box. But history does repeat itself.
Emert also proposed reducing the county jail tax by one-quarter cent and raising the sales tax one-quarter cent.
I wanted to get the question of road resurfacing out for discussion, Conness said, noting he hoped to get the resolution, which was introduced during a July 10 City Council meeting, on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Finance Committee Chairman John Beck (R-12) said, if the resolution passed committee by Aug. 14, and then rules were suspended and the resolution was approved, the referendum could make the Sept. 5 deadline for getting on the ballot.
Conness resolution calls for a proposed .75 cent sales tax increase, which would finance the capital improvements identical to the question that failed on the April 2006 ballot, which called for a 1 percentage point increase in the sales tax. He said the resolution would also do away with the citys vehicle sticker, though the resolution makes no mention of that, according to City Administrator Jim Ryan. Having no capital improvements program would cost the city matching funds for state and federal projects, according to Conness.
He also acknowledged surprise at the failure of the last referendum: I didnt feel there was a possibility that (the referendum) would go down the way that it did. Conness said hes heard naysayers claim that the proposed sales tax wont pass in November because of the Rockford Public School District 205 referendum.
If it is on the November ballot with the schools, so be it, he said, adding that Ive got a feeling that the school district will, at least, discuss this.
The proposed increase would sunset in June 2009, when Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey and all 14 aldermenincluding Connesswould be up for re-election.
Theres a lot of mistrust with us elected officials, Conness said, while explaining his rationale for the two-year sunset. Im putting it all on the line. Im hoping everyone else will, too.
Beck noted reservations about the length of the sunset, since it would only allow the city to collect nearly 18 months in revenue. He suggested extending the sunsets life.
Morrissey said hed support a five-year program that could be presented to the voters. But Morrissey noted aldermen havent approved a capital improvement program yet. He also spoke to how the timing of the referendum could affect the city.
Ald. Joe Sosnowski (R-1) said hed favor creating a four-year plan, complete with suggested investments.
According to Morrissey, if the referendum were put up and passed in April 2007, the city couldnt start collecting revenue until 2008: We have to accept and understand that. He also said the city and District 205s destinies are intertwined.
Were in this together, whether we like it or not, with the school district, Morrissey said.
Ald. Carl Wasco (D-4) said the city needs to build a strong coalition, if it plans to make voters choose between roads and schools. Wasco said hurting the schools would affect property values. According to Wasco, District 205 is making positive strides, including reducing debt and truancy. If we dont continue the districts improvement, Wasco said, fixing the roads wont bring (it) back. I want the guys that ran commercials against us to run them for us, Wasco said, adding they need to understand cash is better than credit.
Morrissey didnt agree a referendum would jeopardize schools: I dont see us in conflict with the district. I think were in partnership with the district.
He stressed he supported the proposed sales tax increase, but noted it needed to be done right.
According to the resolution, 25 percent of the money would be earmarked for paying down existing street bonds, while the remaining 75 percent would go toward arterial, collector and residential resurfacing and reconstruction projects throughout the city.
Finance Director Andres Sammul warned committee members against promising citizens a tax savings. Sammul said assessmentsover which the city has no controlcould rise and produce higher tax bills. He worried that if citizens didnt see a clear saving all-around, the city would be left holding the bag: They lied to us again.
Conness disagreed, We are definitely not hurting ourselves by paying down the bonds. Conness noted hed prefer not having a sunset, but he said it was necessary to handle the objection of the voters.
Each alderman would receive 1/15 of the funds for ward-specific street projects, while Morrissey and the Public Works Department would use the remaining share for discretionary purposes.
Conness said that though not all wards will be able to contribute equally, the revenue will be divided equally. He also noted the sales tax includes revenue from those visiting Rockford.
Beck asked how the resolution would deal with allocating money for large projects.
Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) replied that increasing funding for the residential street program should be a goal, and the city is still receiving motor-fuel tax revenue. Holt said money directed toward retiring the bonds, motor-fuel funds and the 1/15 share earmarked for discretionary spending should be pooled together to finance bigger projects.
Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) agreed: This is about roads. This about getting it done. I think we need every dollar available.
Conness earned the appreciation of Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) for bringing the resolution to the committee. Beach noted that the city has accrued more than $60 million in debt.
It behooves us to look at our whole budget. We must find a way to communicate the need (for the referendum), Beach said.
From the Aug. 2-8, 2006, issue