County puts 1% sales tax issue on ballot

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

The Fayette County Board approved a resolution putting on the April election ballot a referendum for a 1-percent sales tax that would benefit school districts in the county.
The board approved the resolution in a 9-4 vote on Tuesday, with a couple of board members voicing the opposition to the plan presented by superintendents in the Vandalia, Brownstown, Ramsey and St. Elmo school districts.
If approved by voters, the additional 1-percent tax would not be applied to titled or licensed vehicles, food, drugs, medical supplies, resale items or specifically exempted items, including farm supplies and services.
Vandalia Superintendent Rich Well told the board that the Vandalia Board of Education would use funds generated by the tax to pay off the district’s bond indebtedness, instead of using property tax funds for that purpose.
In turn, Well said, that would drop property taxes for residents of the school district. He estimated that the savings for a person with a home valued at $100,000 would be about $250 a year.
St. Elmo Superintendent Deb Philpot said that the other possible use for sales tax monies is building improvements, something that the St. Elmo Board of Education would be looking at.
Well said that the sales tax “is an alternate way to relieve the property tax levy,” something that school officials are constantly asked by taxpayers to do.
Board Chairman Steve Knebel emphasized to board members that a vote on the resolution was not a vote on the sales tax.
“We’re just putting it on the ballot, and letting the people decide,” Knebel said.
But board members Jeff Beckman and Wade Wilhour said that they couldn’t endorse such a tax.
Beckman said, “I feel a lot of taxpayers put me in this position (on the board) … and now is not the time for any new tax.
“I don’t have good feelings about it,” Beckman said, adding that the economy is forcing all entities to look at making cuts.
Knebel repeated that the board’s job was to simply put the issue on the ballot, but said he could support such a tax.
“If we have a chance to alleviate property taxes, to push it on to people from out of town, it behooves us to do that. I think it’s a win situation,” Knebel said.
Well told Beckman that the sales tax is not a way of addressing budget problems.
“This has nothing to do with the budget,” he said. “We’re all maintaining positive balances.”
Knebel told Beckman that if voters approve the sales tax increase, the county board would be the entity determining whether the tax will actually be implemented, and if so, at what level.
“We do have a little control over this (after a referendum vote),” Knebel said.
Beckman said, “I don’t think there’s a guarantee that it will lower them (property taxes).”
Speaking to the superintendents, Wilhour said, “I’m not going to pretend that I know your job better than you.
“There are a lot of advantages to it,” he said. “This is the way it (taxing) should have been from the beginning.
“But when we’re making decisions, I like to look at the broader view. The past has showed us that we’ve spent too much.
“Let’s not kid ourselves – this is not a spending cut,” Wilhour said.
He also said that if school districts lower their property taxes one year, because of the sales tax income, “they may not get what they need (the) next year.
“There is nothing to say that real estate taxes can’t go up along with it (sales tax),” Wilhour said.
“All of us agree that education reform is needed. Before you can get me on board, I want to see some reform in education,” he said.
To that, Knebel said, “Reform has got to come from the state. We don’t have anything to do with that.
“Are there any guarantees (with this)? Nah,” Knebel said. “But what we’re here for is to put this on the ballot. If it passes, it comes back to us,” he said, adding that he ask school officials to make a formal presentation on their plans for the funds if voters OK the increase.
“I don’t want to decide this for the people,” Knebel said, with board member Dean Bernhardt echoing that thought almost word for word.
In a final response to Beckman’s concerns, Well said that if the school district began using the funds for purposes other than those previously stated, “You don’t think there wouldn’t be 500 people in the board room, and you don’t think I wouldn’t be looking for a new job.”
Beckman said that school officials may not hear from 500 people, but there are taxpayers opposed to this kind of action.
Also, he said, “I’ve never seen any government entity receive more money and (make cuts).”
In addition to Beckman and Wilhour, those voting against putting the resolution on the ballot included Joe Kelly and John Daniels Jr.
Voting for the measure were Jean Finley, Loy Staff, Knebel, Bernhardt, Troy Pattillo, Glen Daniels, Keith Cole, Darrell Schaal and Glenn Gurtner.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the board re-elected Knebel and Beckman to the chairman and vice chairman positions.
Fayette County Clerk and Recorder Terri Braun officially seated on the board those individuals who won board seats at the November election – Gurtner, Staff, Beckman, Glen Daniels, Bernhardt, Schaal and Wilhour.
Knebel announced that Gurtner was concerned about the possibility of a conflict of interest with his service on both the county board and the Vandalia Levee and Drainage District Board, so he had resigned from the levee and drainage district board.
The board then approved the appointment of Virgil Carson to that board.
Also at the meeting:
• Fayette County State’s Attorney Stephen Friedel reported that a recent law school graduate, Matthew Riedle of rural Shobonier, is serving an internship with his office, and has been sworn in as an assistant state’s attorney for the term of the internship.
• The board approved the appointment of Mark Smith to the Pond Lilly Drainage District, to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Marion Bone.
• The board approved the appointments of Staff, Bernhardt, Finley, County Treasurer Rose Hoover, Gerald Reed and Ernie Chappel to the county’s CDAP (Community Development Assistance Program) committee.
• Knebel reported that the mapping work for the county’s Enhanced 911 project “is coming along well,” and he is hoping that work will be completed within six months.
“In the near future, we (Enhanced 911 committee) will begin looking at equipment,” Knebel said.
• The board approved a new, two-year contract for county highway employees who are members of Laborers’ International Union of North America, Council 1197.
Knebel said the contract includes a 3-percent raise.
“We appreciate them working with us. They could have brought a 4 1/2-percent increase, and we would have had a tough time turning it down,” he said, referring to increases given to other county employees in recent years.
He and Bernhardt, chairman of the board’s personnel and insurance committee, said the board wanted a two-year contract so that contracts with three unions having county employees are on the same renewal schedule.
• Fayette County Circuit Clerk Mary Sue Ruot reported that her office is the first within the Fourth Judicial Circuit approved to accept electronic pleas and payments.
• Rhonda Andrews, administrator of the Fayette County Health Department, reported that rehabilitation work on the department’s new home is nearing 75 percent completion.
The health department plans to move into the former home of Leo Brown Lumber early next year.