City Beat: Support the 1% (sales tax)

Measure that’s raised $124 million for repairs goes back on the ballot in 2016

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

The 1 percent sales tax for the City of Rockford is set to hit the ballot again in 2016–supporters hope for the primary election and not buried down the line during November’s general affair.

Here are some facts on the tax you can see for yourself around town:

  • As of the 2015 fiscal year, $124 million has been generated by the tax and kept in the city.
  • Over 120 miles of roadways have been resurfaced in Rockford thanks to those funds.
  • More than 30 of those miles are main arterial roads, cutting down on travel time across town.
  • Around your neighborhoods, 245 alleys and more than 2,800 manholes have been repaired and reinforced.
  • Key roadways like Spring Brook; Alpine on both ends of Rockford; Auburn Street; downtown’s State Street (and various cross streets); and the Jefferson Street bridge have seen massive improvements in the last year, all while many IDOT projects across the state have been put on hold.

“This tax forged new ground in the Rockford region,” City Engineer Matt Vitner told the Times. “Previously, the city bonded and took on debt service year-after-year where the debt service lasted longer than the investment. Bad business.”

The tax failed the first time out as critics told the voters that people would simply leave Rockford to do their shopping. Thankfully, at the second crack that sort of scare-tactic was overwhelmed, and now we have a self-funded and debt-free program rebuilding Rockford’s streets and sidewalks.

“The temperature of the voters now is that renewal is almost a no-brainer,” said Vitner. “Especially when we started that commercial retail resurfacing program around East State – around the industrial parks and along Riverside – people started to see because they’re driving on that every day. They say, ‘Look, Rockford’s starting to take care of itself.’

“The tide is rising all across the city now that you see this influx in meaningful public investment.”

The improvements downtown the city hopes will pay dividends. Fix a sidewalk here, resurface a parking lot there, get more people down here spending money and get more money back into fixing even more infrastructure via the sales tax.

“We want to have marketable imagery, we want people to make memories in Rockford,” Vitner said.

“Our partners – Peter Provenzano and their boutique hotel, Justin Fern and Urban Equity Properties – because of the public investment, storefronts are filling in, because people see a change in the culture.”

“Stuff like hotels or new residential, those are static in terms of bringing people downtown,” said Mayor Larry Morrissey. “Add those to the sports center, the businesses already here and the ones that are coming and we’ve built a good base.”

“That’s what our sales tax money was able to do for us,” added Vitner. “Where bond money was just spent in neighborhoods where people going to work every day couldn’t see it, unless you were lucky enough to see it. Now everybody can see it.”

The city’s efforts have paid off, as IDOT has taken notice and fronted $100 million for the work on South and North Main Street.  Being able to complete projects on state highways (like the Jeff Street bridge) go a long way to showing the state Rockford is working to put itself back on the national map for business and tourism.

The payoff from the tax keeps construction work moving forward across town, pumping money back into the local economy via jobs and support services.

So sure, taxes are a tough sell in any economic climate, but keeping the 1 percent sales tax in the city should be a no-brainer. Especially when you consider the other option relies heavily on waiting to get our tax money back from Springfield, and we’ve seen how well that can work out.

Speaking of Springfield, the mayor had some harsh words for state leaders who still can’t come to a budget agreement, now nearly six months overdue.

“To me, it’s just a sad state of affairs,” Morrissey said, “pun intended.”

The mayor says it’s absurd that funding packages for the state are being subjected to a litmus test of sorts, as Gov. Bruce Rauner continues to hold up key spending bills as he tries to push his “Turnaround Agenda” through.

“It’s completely irresponsible,” said the mayor. “That balanced budget amendment to the state constitution apparently has no meaning. Just get in a room already and work it out.”

The mayor is a supporter of parts of Rauner’s foundation agenda, but he says that those plans are far from unique for the first-term governor and shouldn’t be used to hold the residents of Illinois economically hostage.

“These aren’t new things. These aren’t new ideas. What’s new is shutting it all down because they can’t work it out. Every one of them down there is to blame.”

It’s time to get one little rumor that keeps kicking around town straight: the one where Gorman is only going to build the hotel if South New Towne is completed.

If you’ve been following the dialogue of the much-maligned proposed housing project – the one that will, depending on who you ask, either destabilize the far East State Street district or send the entire region into an unrecoverable tailspin – you’ve come across some version of this. All of them are wrong.

So here’s what you need to know the next time you hear some grand Gorman conspiracy: New Towne has nothing to do with the downtown hotel project. Gorman was contacted independently about the abandoned Amerock building by the Friends of Ziock group.

Let’s repeat that: Gorman was contacted independently about the abandoned Amerock building by the Friends of Ziock group, this after the county board chairman’s downtown revitalization plan went up in smoke and long before New Towne became part of the greater public conscience.

Muddying the waters around New Towne has worked as a handy tool for some who are simply politicking around it, but it’s time for this tired line to be put to bed.

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