On Tuesday, Illinois voters will go to the polls, and one of the most significant questions they’ll face in Rock Island County is whether to approve a 1% public safety sales tax.
This may not seem to be the best time to ask for a tax increase of any kind. The novel coronavirus has unsettled all of us, including financial markets and the economy.
Still, the county faces a crossroads, and this question figures prominently in its future.
For too long, Rock Island County has had to rely too heavily on property taxes to fund its budget. And it's plain to all that real estate taxes have been rising at too fast a rate. It can’t continue.
County Administrator Jim Snider says that, if the measure to approve a 1% sales tax passes, it will mean a minimum 17% reduction in the 2020 property tax levy amount. And, he says, the county’s share of property taxes in five years would be lower than what it is today.
The proceeds of the tax, which officials say would not apply to vehicles, groceries, prescription and non-prescription drugs, would be used for public safety purposes.
This, of course, isn’t the first time that county officials have asked for an increase in the sales tax.
In 2016, voters rejected the request. And we know that one of the reasons was cynicism over how the county board does business.
What is not in dispute, however, is the county's budget problems have not gone away. And it is not for lack of action.
Perhaps the biggest step the county has taken recently is to agree to sell the Hope Creek Care Center, which was steadily draining county coffers.
This was no easy step. It is true the county didn’t get as much as it wanted, and we would have preferred a different buyer. But we have long supported the sale of the home as a necessary budgetary step.
There was tremendous opposition by some in the county, including those with influence. But county board members, by a two-thirds majority, no less, had the courage to take that step.
It wasn’t easy, but the sale was necessary and the board proved it is willing to make tough choices.
This comes on top of previous steps to hire professional management and end pension and health care benefits to board members.
We believe the sales tax increase also is a needed step to righting the county's financial ship. It will relieve pressure on property taxes, which we all know are far too high in Illinois.
In addition, this sales tax also would spread the burden beyond property owners and renters. County officials estimate 20% of the tax would be paid by people who live outside the county. For county taxpayers, that is no small benefit.
We know the sales tax increase will put Rock Island County at a greater disadvantage when compared to the Iowa Quad-Cities, where the sales tax already is lower.
However, we believe the property tax disparity between the two states is a far bigger disincentive to growth in the Illinois Quad-Cities. Progress needs to be made on this front.
We would be remiss if we did not point out that the environment around this sales tax proposal is far different than in 2016, when there was a full-court press for the measure.
We supported its passage back then, too.
This time, there has been very little public campaigning for the ballot measure, a strange circumstance given how important it is to the county's financial future.
We are disappointed this debate has not taken place. It's a missed opportunity to inform the public about what's at stake here — and to answer legitimate questions about choices the board has made on Hope Creek, the county courthouse and other matters.
We realize this sales tax referendum would be a tough pill for residents to swallow. But public safety costs are growing — and the sheriff’s department already is short-handed and needs equipment upgrades.
It is true that we have differed with the county board on some issues recently. But we also are clear-eyed about its budget situation, and about the challenges it faces.