Syverson sponsored jail tax bill

Law says voters must approve tax, but can’t repeal it

Former Winnebago County Board Chairman Gene Quinn lobbied for the bill in 1995

By Jeff Havens

Staff Writer

State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) sponsored the 1995 bill that allows certain counties to impose a sales tax for “public safety purposes.” Syverson’s bill (P.A. 89-107) became law Jan. 1, 1996, paving the way for Winnebago County’s jail tax.

However, even though the tax may not be imposed without direct voter approval, the tax may not be repealed directly by voters.

State statute (55 ILCS 5/5-1006.5) reads: “If a county imposes a tax under this section, the county board may, by ordinance, discontinue or lower the rate of the tax.”

Gary Kovanda, Winnebago County deputy state’s attorney, said there is no provision in the law that would allow voters to directly repeal the jail tax—only the county board can repeal the tax.

Syverson said he couldn’t recall the reason why a provision was not written into the law to allow voters to directly repeal the tax. However, he speculated that the law was probably written to “guarantee” a taxpayer-supported “revenue stream” to bond holders that fund public safety projects.

Syverson said he would consider supporting a bill that would allow voters to directly repeal the tax, after the bonds are paid to construct Winnebago County’s proposed 1,212-bed jail.

The jail is expected to cost between $127-$130 million. Approximately 36 percent of the expected annual revenue generated from the jail tax, or $8.3 million, will be used to pay the bond debt.

Lobbying for Syverson’s bill on March 16, 1995, was former Winnebago County Board Chairman Gene Quinn (R). State records indicate only three individuals, including Quinn, testified before the state revenue committee—all were proponents of the bill.

Quinn said he doesn’t remember testifying for the bill, but did remember supporting changing the law because “we needed the sales tax to build a new jail.” Quinn added that James Thomas’ 1994 federal jail overcrowding lawsuit was “the final straw” that necessitated changing the law.

Thomas was represented by Rockford attorney John F. Heckinger Jr., who negotiated with the county in 1997 a three-year moratorium on future jail lawsuits. When the moratorium expired in 2000, Heckinger filed another jail overcrowding lawsuit.

Heckinger is representing Timothy Chatmon and Timothy Chatman Jr., in that 2000 lawsuit. It was this lawsuit that led to the 2002 increase in the county’s sales tax to pay for construction of the county’s new jail (see Sept. 29 article “Jail lawsuit plaintiff urges tax repeal”).

The other two proponents for Syverson’s bill were Chicago attorneys J. Douglas Donenfeld and Kiplund R. Kolkmeier. Before Rockford Mayor Doug Scott was elected in 2001, Kolkmeier contributed $150 to Scott’s campaign, when Scott was state representative.

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