Originally Posted Online: March 08, 2014, 4:39 pm
Last Updated: March 08, 2014, 5:32 pm
School facilities tax up to voters
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By Anthony Watt, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rock Island County voters will decide in the March 18 election whether to levy a sales tax to fund capital projects in the schools.
If it passes, the tax, an additional 1 percent on most purchases, is expected to generate $11.5 million for county school districts annually. The money would be divided among the districts based on enrollment.
"The dollars follow the students," Tammy Muerhoff, Rock Island County regional superintendent of schools, said recently.
All of the county's districts have come out in support of the measure, arguing the sales tax would allow districts to better handle their facilities needs, including improving physical security measures and maintenance/renovation efforts.
Supporters also have said the tax revenue would be an economic generator, creating jobs through the projects and drawing people to the area because of improved schools. The said the revenue generated by the sales tax could also reduce school districts' reliance on the existing life/safety property tax levy.
School districts could only use the sales tax revenue on capital projects, including paying off existing facilities bonds.
The revenue could not be used for salaries, benefits, textbooks, computers or movable equipment.
Purchases exempt from the tax are unprepared foods, such as groceries; prescription and over-the-counter medicine; vehicle and boat purchases; farm equipment and parts; and services.
The life/safety portion of the existing property tax levy, which many of the districts committed to ending, is about $1,327,892 total, with each district getting varying amounts. Moline-Coal Valley gets about $410,000, while Carbon Cliff/Barstow gets about $9,100.
That does not make such a move permanent, however. Rock Island-Milan superintendent Mike Oberhaus said at a recent editorial board meeting that future school boards could decide to reinstate the life/safety property tax, and it is up to the public to hold them accountable for their decisions on the matter.
Many of the districts have also been updating their capital plans pegging the wish lists and their estimated completion times to the money they hope to collect from the sales tax. They have said the projects and time lines in those plans would be difficult to accomplish without the sales tax, leaving them to focus on the most important projects with longer estimated completion times.
The Rock Island-Milan School District recently approved a study detailing $38 million in upgrades and improvements — largely in security and maintenance — in the next ten years.
Completion on a 10-year schedule would only be possible with passage of the sales tax or with another new source of funding, Mr. Oberhaus has said.
If voters reject the measure, Mr. Oberhaus said the district will focus on the security upgrades, though they would take much longer to complete.
The Silvis School District recently finished a major capital project — building a new junior high and the remodeling of George O. Barr Elementary School.
The district, which expects about $300,000 from the sales tax annually, would use between $125,000 and $175,000 of that money on bond payments instead of completely relying on property taxes, superintendent Ray Bergles has said.
There are also some projects the sales tax money could be used on — tuck pointing, more event parking and more bleachers, he said.
Voters in Mercer and Henry counties both passed a similar tax in early 2013. In Mercer, when it is in full swing, the tax is expected to bring in about $640,000 annually, while in Henry County, the revenue is expected to reach $3 million.
But not everyone thinks the proposed tax will have a positive effect.
Several opponents of the proposal recently said they have several concerns, including that the new tax will hurt, not help, the county economy and cause loss of voter oversight.
Increasing the sales tax will widen the gap between the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Quad-Cities, they said, with Iowa already has lower sales tax. More tax in Rock Island County could drive more business and consumer dollars across the Mississippi River.
The possibility of the sales tax money freeing districts of the need for issuing bonds is also a concern, they said. A bond issuance is usually an act requiring voter approval and lessening the districts' reliance on them could also lessen voter influence on district decision making.
More information from the opponents can be found at voteno2tax.blogspot.com.
Supporters of the school tax have information online at facebook.com/YESMakesCentsForStudents.
Highlights of school districts' capital plans
— Moline-Coal Valley: Air conditioning for the high school, security upgrades and improvements to the high school auditorium and swimming pool.
— Rock Island-Milan: Security upgrades, centralized food services and improvements to athletic fields and swimming pool.
— United Township: Upgrades for security and improvements to classrooms, athletic, and art and music facilities.
— Silvis: Bond abatement, bleachers and tuck pointing.
— Hampton: Air conditioning and flooring among others.
— Carbon Cliff/Barstow: Paying off bonds, building an athletic field and general maintenance.
— East Moline: Improvements to school climate control systems, replacing boilers, new windows and doors.
— Riverdale: Climate control for the high school, remodeled high school science laboratories and new gym floor and bleachers.
— Rockridge: Air conditioning, bond abatement, roof replacement and security upgrades.
— Sherrard: Pay debt on wind turbine and upgrade security.