One Small Step for a consumer; one giant leap for public schools

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Bill Knight

Reminiscent of Neil Armstrong, the opportunity is “one small step for a consumer; one giant leap for public schools.”

The ballot reads: “Proposition for a 1% Sales Tax for School Facility Purposes – ‘Shall a retailer’s occupation tax and service occupation tax (commonly referred to as a “Sales Tax”) be imposed in the Peoria County at a rate of 1% to be used exclusively for school facility purposes?’”

That’s 1 cent on every dollar spent on some retail purchases. Many items would not be taxed, such as groceries, prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, cars, trucks, ATVs, boats, RVs, mobile homes, and farm equipment and parts. Also, services would not be taxed – nor would anything not currently taxed.

Revenues from this targeted sales tax would only be used to maintain, renovate or upgrade existing school facilities, improve energy efficiency and safety/security standards, start construction, and pay off building bonds that can help reduce property taxes.

In other words, the revenue generated from making purchases you already make could not be spent on salaries and benefits, instructional costs, textbooks and computers, moveable equipment, school buses, or operating costs.

Based on an Iowa law, the law passed in Illinois in 2007 allowing voter approval of the dedicated sales tax is the first move away from relying exclusively on property taxes for local school district funding.

This isn’t an extreme idea (although the needs are). All of Iowa and some Illinois counties already have the tax – including Knox and Warren Counties – where benefits include better schools, property tax relief, new taxes generated by visitors to the counties, job creation, local control of the new funds, and attracting new families, advocates say.

In fact, renovations and new construction in nearby Knoxville, Galesburg and Monmouth are the direct result of the facilities sales tax passing in Knox and Warren Counties – where businesses have not been hurt by the extra penny per dollar. Knoxville CUSD 202 Superintendent Steve Wilder says his school of about 1,100 students gets about $600,000 a year, enabling them to finish a $31 million schools, with the penny tax paying the bulk of the district’s 1/3 share.

“Without the facilities sales tax, these needs couldn’t be addressed,” he said. “Used the right way, it benefits students directly, or taxpayers, like in Abingdon, where they paid down their debt.”

Monmouth-Roseville Superintendent Ed Fletcher says District 238 gets about $575,000 a year from the penny tax, and they’re using it to replace boilers and roofs and completing an ag/weight room. And in Galesburg, CUSD 205 Superintendent Bart Arthur said that district of about 4,400 students gets about $2 million each year.

“We were able to abate some taxes while also undertaking an $11 million middle school project, a $9 million elementary school project, and a $15 million multi-purpose facility,” Arthur said. “To be real honest, I don’t think consumers notice. I can’t believe it makes that big a difference. But it sure does to us.”

Jeff Whitsitt, chair of the Monmouth Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said before Warren County voters passed the School Facilities Sales Tax in 2012, there was concern that people would bypass Warren County to shop in other communities, but that never happened.

“It’s common sense,” said Whitsitt, who’s also Superintendent of United High School. “You’re not going to go somewhere else to shop for 1 cent. That’d be a net loss in gasoline alone.

“The Chamber was very sympathetic to what schools have had to deal with from the state and dropping financial support,” he said. “Plus, a lot of people from outside the area drive through and stop at a gas station or McDonalds or whatever and help our schools.”

Likewise, restaurateur Phil Dickinson of Galesburg’s Landmark Café and Creperie said the penny tax has made no difference in his business.

“There’s been no noticeable impact from that specific tax,” Dickinson said. “No employee has mentioned their tips being affected either, [but] most folks usually tip on the total before taxes.”

In Peoria, dismay about District 150 should be an argument for assistance, not for punishment.

Further, denying the help would saddle future boards and inconvenience students, too.

After all, voters can re-elect or replace school boards, but we can’t print money.

Finally, the proposition would help employ people, make safer or modernize the places our children learn, and create infrastructure that could be at least as important an attraction to prospective new residents as a string of eateries and taverns in the Warehouse District.

In Peoria, schools’ needs are substantial – and expensive: millions of dollars needed for Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) projects, plus replacing bad roofs; millions more in health-life-safety jobs; plus upgrades in school security, fire alarms and phone systems; improvements in energy efficiency through better windows and lighting, and enhanced technology infrastructure; and finishing “pay-as-you-go” facilities projects such as athletic facilities and auditorium renovations.

The penny tax would mean an additional $600+ per student in annual revenue, which in Peoria would generate more than $8 million in additional revenue for public schools. Decisions on how best to use the funds would be made locally, not in Springfield or Washington.

“The benefit to taxpayers who own property is that real estate tax increases should be reduced,” said Marty Helfers, Executive Director of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council.

A unique partnership of union leaders, educators, community activists, and advocates for children in Peoria County have worked together to implement what’s essentially a rescue plan, and school boards representing more than 95 percent of the county’s student enrollment endorsed the proposition.

“We are living by and large on the capital investments in education made by our grandparents and great-grandparents,” Helfers said. “More grade schools were built in this country in 1958 than any other year before or since. More high schools were built in 1968 than any year before or after.

It is truly this generation’s time to step up to the plate and provide a 21st century learning experience for our children. In order for us as a nation to retain and build upon any educational advantage we currently hold in the world, it begins with a quality facility conducive to an effective and sustainably learning experience for our youth.”

Seize the chance to help students: Vote for the penny tax.

For more information, a 10-minute explanatory video, “Introduction to the Illinois County School Facility Sales Tax,” is online: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLN9yacb4dE

Bill Knight



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