City tries again for sales tax increase, approves MetroCentre amendment

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117027477931221.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘ Marjorie Veitch spoke for many who support the sales tax increase, rather than raising property taxes. ‘);

During a three-hour meeting Jan. 29, the Rockford City Council decided to make another go at selling a 1-percentage point sales tax increase to voters.

The agenda, however, was amended with some new business following the Winnebago County Board’s meeting four nights earlier.

Now that the county has lifted its restraint on Rockford’s pursuit to own an American Hockey League (AHL) franchise affiliated with the Chicago Blackhawks, the council moved swiftly to approve the new deal.

Jan. 25, the County Board loosened its grip on $9 million, asking only that the county’s money solely be used for design and construction.

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey said that won’t be a problem.

“In essence, the changes that we made tonight are more technical than anything else,” Morrissey explained. “The county wants to make sure that their funds go to construction and design of the facility only; that it doesn’t go to help support the costs of a hockey team, and that’s fair. That’s what we’re gonna commit to do.”

“They only affect the reporting requirements of the City of Rockford,” Legal Director Patrick Hayes said of the modifications, “to verify that the county’s funds are used solely for building expenses.”

Aldermen Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) and Linda McNeely (D-13) were the only councilmen to vote against the modifications to, and approval of, the agreement.

The Feb. 12 bond sale should go on as scheduled now that the city and county have smoothed out differences, and renovations can begin as planned.

“We’re starting now,” MetroCentre General Manager Corey Pearson stated. “We really have our final approval that we were looking for, and now we’re just waiting for the bond sale.”

The MetroCentre has reached an agreement, in principle, to purchase the Rockford IceHogs from Tri-Vision Sports.

Hayes described the transaction as a transfer of assets to the MetroCentre.

“It looks like a lot of things are falling into place,” said IceHogs majority owner Dr. Kris Tumilowicz. “We may be seeing a new version of the Rockford IceHogs next season.”

Although Tumilowicz will no longer have an ownership stake in the team, he will be chairman of a hockey advisory board at the MetroCentre. Tumilowicz said the sale should be finalized within days.

Meanwhile, the MetroCentre is also hoping to solidify a 10-year deal with the Blackhawks to bring their AHL farm team to Rockford.

All the MetroCentre needs for that to happen now is an AHL franchise. Pearson said he’s been working closely with a seller but would not disclose which team.

In other council news, debate about whether to present voters with a .75 or 1-percentage point sales tax referendum on the April 17 ballot dominated the lengthy meeting.

“I’m gonna support whatever this council puts on the ballot, as long as it’s not a property tax increase,” Morrissey offered, despite clearly favoring the 1 percentage point sales tax referendum.

The mayor hopes a five-year sunset clause will solicit the trust of many voters who turned down a similar referendum last March.

“We’re asking our community, ‘give us five years to prove that we can shift away from property taxes,’” Morrissey explained, “‘so we can invest directly in roads and bridges throughout this community so that we have a better, brighter future and a stronger economy in Rockford.’”

In five years, the tax increase could only be extended by another referendum.

Morrissey hopes he and the council can present a specific plan to voters, showing where the approximately $16 million a year would be going.

Although the Finance and Personnel Committee recommended a 1 percentage point increase to the council, Ald. Joe Sosnowski (R-1) asked fellow aldermen to place only a .75 percentage point question on the ballot.

“We have got to take into consideration that we need to have this program pass this year,” Sosnowski urged. “The reason I wouldn’t favor a 1 percent is we’re just adding a little bit of risk to our sales force, and I don’t think it’s a risk we necessarily need to take because I think we’re gonna be in a much better position, even with three-quarter percent.”

Ald. Doug Mark (R-3), however, thinks the 1 percentage point is the best deal to sell.

“That’s the best thing for all of us,” Mark argued. “We know it is. We need to stand up and make sure it gets done because last year we all did stand up and say it was the best way to go, and it still is.”

“We don’t have the luxury to lose this thing again,” Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) noted. “We need to tighten our belts, get every dollar we can from every source, humbly and intelligently present to the voters how three-quarters of a percent will give us what we need to move on for the next five years. It’s a lot more than we’ve ever had.”

Ald. Dan Conness (D-14) is confident voters will recognize the need for the referendum to pass.

“Throughout the last year, the residents of the city have become much more informed on the 1 percent sales tax,” Conness reported.

By supporting the 1 percentage point increase, Conness expects vehicle stickers will be repealed.

“It is a new tax,” Ald. Carl Wasco (D-4) noted. “It’s a new way of doing things, and if we don’t admit that and go honestly to the taxpayer, we lose again.”

Wasco favored the .75 percentage point increase and agreed with Beach that the city needs to tighten its belt.

Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) saluted Sosnowski, but said he’d be supporting the extra quarter percentage point.

“I think that is going to generate what we need to retire our debt,” Bell argued.

“I want my streets fixed,” Ald. Pat Curran (R-2) insisted, noting the city’s need to catch up on infrastructure improvements. “Get enough to do it. If three-quarters is not quite enough, you wanna come back to the voters in three, four, five years and say, ‘You know, folks, we’re sorry. We need another quarter-percent’? I don’t wanna do that. Get it over with, and make some progress.”

Considering March’s defeat, Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) said asking voters for only a .75 percentage point increase this time would decrease the risk of losing this critical referendum.

“Ultimately, it’s not gonna be our decision,” Holt reminded the council. “It’s gonna be the voters’ decision, and whatever we place before them, we should place something that they’re most likely to support.”

Wasco, Thompson-Kelly, Beach, Holt and Ald. Nancy Johnson (D-8) stood with Sosnowski in favor of the .75 percentage point increase, but the motion failed in a 6-8 vote.

With the 1-percentage point referendum question now at hand, Holt proposed another amendment.

Holt supported Bell’s idea of paying down debt and suggested that a quarter of the increase should be dedicated to accelerated bond reduction.

“When, two years from now, we open our property tax bill, and the city’s rate went down by 14 percent,” Holt told Morrissey, “you’re gonna have a good opportunity to be re-elected, Your Honor.”

Ald. Lenny Jacobson (D-6), Wasco, Thompson-Kelly, Johnson, Beach, Holt and McNeely voted in favor of the amendment, splitting the council down the middle 7-7.

Mayor Morrissey broke the tie by joining Aldermen Bill Timm (R-9), John Beck (R-12), Conness, Sosnowski, Curran, Mark and Bell in voting against Holt’s property tax relief plan.

“I don’t believe we should be moving forward without having a plan if the 1- percent doesn’t pass,” McNeely argued. “We have nothing in place if this referendum fails come April.”

McNeely suggested the option of funding road improvements with bonds deserved further consideration.

In the end, McNeely stood alone in voting against placing the 1 percentage point sales tax referendum on the ballot.

Voters will decide April 17 whether to grant the city its five-year increase.

From the Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2007, issue

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