Sales tax increase to appear on April ballot, fund 14 school districts

A referendum proposing a 1 percent sales tax increase in Champaign County will be on ballots in the county’s April elections.

The referendum, if passed by a majority, will help fund the maintenance of 14 public school districts in Champaign County.

Urbana School District 116 plans to improve the building quality and develop programs for children with the additional funding, said Brenda Carter, Urbana School District Board of Education member.

“If this passes, our main goal is to update the schools and make them energy efficient,” Carter said.

“We’ll look at allocating Early Childhood Programs. We would provide a place for these (centers). These are for children ages three to five who go to the Urbana School District.”

Fifty percent of Urbana School District’s budget originates from property taxes, said Mark Netter, president of the Board of Education.

Under the County School Facility Occupation Tax Law, school districts can now ask residents to provide funding through a sales tax increase.

Netter said the facilities must be near the brink of deterioration in order to receive funding from property tax increases.

Chris Kaler, member of Citizens Looking at Supporting Schools, said a sales tax increase would allow more citizens to participate in funding public services such as schools, park districts and libraries.

“This is a tax spread across all users,” Kaler said.

“Everyone is more involved in paying this. We’re trying to spread more tax liability over a broader base. Hopefully more people will be able to contribute.”

However, some residents are hesitant to support this sales tax increase, as the bill was defeated on the November 2008 ballot.

“The taxpayers rejected this 1 percent tax already,” said Urbana resident E. Wayne Johnson.

“The economy has not improved. I find it to be somewhat deceitful and dishonest, maybe even dishonorable that the school boards are coming at us again, and at a low turnout municipal election where voter turnout is likely to be low, hoping that the ‘no’ votes will not turn out for this minor election.”

Johnson, a parent of four, said two of his oldest children attend King School in Urbana. He finds no problem with the education his sons are receiving.

“I am personally opposed to the 1 percent sales tax increase at this time because of the uncertain economic conditions, and because of the absence of a sunset provision whereby the tax increase ends,” Johnson said.

He said a sales tax increase is not an urgent need for school districts. He added that the school system’s plans to spend the money are ambiguous.

“We are not in an emergency situation,” Johnson said. “Let’s have the school systems put their houses in order, provide more information to the public about how the money is being spent…and then present a more reasonable plan than the one offered.”

If the bill passes, the sales tax will apply to retail items. It will not affect purchases at grocery stores, prescription medications, farm equipment or anything associated with a home, car, boat or trailer.

Currently, the public school districts are home-ruled and cannot override the tax cap that limits the local governments’ ability to generate funding, said Ward 1 Alderman Charlie Smyth.