Editorial: Liquor tax mishandled

During the June 14 meeting of the Champaign City Council, a proposed 4 percent packaged liquor tax was unanimously defeated, further dwindling hopes that three Champaign police front desk positions could be saved from the chopping block. However, the measure was supported 6-3 during a May 17 straw poll.

The about-face from the council was not due to its unwillingness to save the staff positions — members pledged to revisit the issue in July — but to the departure from protocol by Mayor Don Gerard during the May 17 meeting.

At the end of that meeting, Gerard, apparently still in the hard-charging mindset of the election season, took to what he called his “bully pulpit” to chastise the council members and bring the issue of the liquor tax to an immediate straw vote. Gerard’s passion and oratory were on full display, but in retrospect, his passion may have subverted his own goals.

Two mistakes were made in Gerard’s handling of this matter.

First, Gerard’s call to vote broke with normal city council protocol. During a regular study session, the council receives input from city staff and audience members as well as comments from the council members themselves. The city staff then compiles information packets and options for the council to vote on.

In taking the liquor tax to vote, Gerard bypassed a needed step in ensuring the measure reflected input from the community, staff and other council members. Many business owners were apparently left in the dark about the tax and the vote, making their outrage understandable.

Secondly, the proposed tax itself was flawed. An estimated $700,000 in revenue would have been raised from the tax, but the three police staff positions only needed about $200,000 to be retained. During city council meetings, local liquor store owners questioned the need for the additional $500,000 in revenue.

In fact, some owners suggested that a quarter percent or 1 percent tax would have been feasible, but that 4 percent was egregious and put them at a competitive disadvantage with stores in surrounding towns like Savoy. They rightly questioned why their specific industry was being singled out.

Perhaps, had Gerard allowed time for information and input to be gathered for the proposed tax, three vitally needed police staffers could finally catch their breath and go back to serving and protecting. Instead, Gerard may have alienated council members, angered business owners and left these public servants languishing.

The council will continue to look for a new revenue stream to save these positions, but the longer it takes, the greater the danger these police staffers will move on of their own accord to find ensured job stability.

Mayor Gerard needs to remove his election hat and put on his mayoral one. His enthusiasm and emotion have the potential to serve himself and the public well, but he must temper himself in the future to be truly effective as a leader and lawmaker.