NEWS

‘We'll control our own destiny’: Williamson County looks to be first Illinois county to enact School Facility Tax Law

Matt Hawkins

With Williamson County schools hampered by a lack of capital funding from Springfield in recent years, county superintendents look to become the first Illinois county to raise building funds through a sales tax increase while adjusting property tax rates accordingly.

A 1 percent increase on some goods would provide an estimated $7.5 million annually for the school districts to pursue projects or pay off existing debt without waiting for a capital funding bill to pass the General Assembly.

"We've lived our entire lives in Southern Illinois living of table scraps from northern legislators," said Marion Unit 2 superintendent Dr. Wade Hudgens. "No longer will we depend on the broken promises of politicians in Springfield and Chicago. We'll control our own destiny and do it quite well."

Should voters on Feb. 4 approve the measure, Williamson County would become the first county to take advantage of the County School Facility Occupation Tax Law, which was passed last year. The law, modeled after a 1998 Iowa law, enables counties to pass a sales tax of up to 1 percent for school construction or improvement. All Iowa counties have since utilized the tax option. Now, educators' eyes around the state watch Williamson County's effort to do likewise.

"I've been contacted by county officials and superintendents around the state," Hudgens said. "They want it to be a success. They think it will start a trend to shift away from property tax."

Marion, Carterville and Johnston City top the list of construction concerns. All three districts have been listed on capital funding bills over the last decade though the state hasn't provided any money. Marion is working on designs for a new Creal Springs School and awaits funding to build a new high school. Carterville administrators look to replace the 84-year-old high school. Johnston City has been waiting since 2002 for state funding to complete construction on Lincoln School.

"We had a bond to build in 2003," Carterville Superintendent Tim Bleyer said. "I'd like to say we were patient, but that's not the case. People were angry. We see this as a county-wide opportunity that would meet needs."

Herrin and Crab Orchard have completed major building projects in recent years, though those districts have various maintenance, upgrades and expansion projects to complete.

"Since I came to Johnston City in 2003, legislators tell me two or three times a year that this (a capital construction bill) is our top priority," Johnston City Superintendent Gary Schurz said. "We've been at the top of the list for six years and it didn't happen. With one vote, we can create more jobs than the governor ever hopes to promise, much less show."

The proposed sales tax would apply to all purchased items except groceries, state-titled vehicles and prescription drugs. Revenue may only be used for school construction or improvement purposes. 

Districts will divide funding proportionally by enrollment.

Should the state provide construction money, the schools would not be hurt by the tax. Instead, state funding would accelerate bond repayments.

Once in place, the tax cannot be repealed until bond debt is paid off or another source of repayment is secured.

"It's not a short-term sales tax," Bleyer said. "We're looking at the long term, however this has a long-term impact. We'll shift away from property taxes to a fairer tax."

Where the Money Would Go

Marion will use its share of the money initially to build a new Creal Springs School and a $60 million to $70 million high school.

Carterville will pursue a high school to accommodate 700 students, with a cost of roughly $30-35 million. Then, the district would expand its preschool facilities.

Johnston City would address Lincoln School construction first, then move onto projects such as additional classroom space throughout the district, technology upgrades, athletic facility upgrades and parking and traffic flow issues at Washington and Jefferson Schools.

"A sales tax like this helps boards to dream a little and solve problems we think we can't solve," Schurz said. "Right now we're not able to dream because there's no money."

Crab Orchard will use its share to pay off bonds from a 2004 high school. Those bonds run through 2014, with a $1.3 million outstanding debt. In addition, increased enrollment is creading a need for more classroom additions.

"We're packed even though we're a small district," superintendent Derek Hutchins said. "I have no more classroom space even though I did two years ago."

Herrin will work to retire its $9 million bond debt from construction over the last decade.

Property Tax Relief

Superintendents said districts would use sales tax revenue to lower property tax rates. Some communities could see rate decreases sooner than others.

Herrin residents could soon see the tax levy lowered from $4.51 per $100 of assessed value to $3.21. That's roughly a $433 savings for each $100,000 of property value. Once lowered below the $3.29 level, Unit 4 may not increase property tax above that mark without voter consent because Unit 4 is a capped district.

"When was the last time you've had an opportunity to lower property taxes?" asked Herrin superintendent Dr. Mark Collins.

Crab Orchard taxpayers could see their property tax rates drop from $4.66/$100 to $3.86/$100 as bonds would be paid through the sales tax rather than property tax.

Marion, Carterville and Johnston City residents also could see property tax relief, perhaps not with an immediately significant drop as proposed by Herrin and Crab Orchard.

Other Benefits

Superintendents point to a couple other benefits of the tax — spreading out the cost and creating jobs.

"The magnitude of $75-$100 million in projects is expected to create jobs," Bleyer said. "The trade union groups are anxious to put people to work."

Hudgens figures taxes will come one way or another, regardless of this vote.

"The sales tax in Marion is going to increase, either by voters for this restricted purpose or by others increasing it for a purpose without voter input," he said. "I suggest voters have an opportunity to say how the sales tax will be spent."

What If?

Should the tax referendum not pass, county districts will remain in a holding pattern until the state provides capital funds.

In Marion, that means no new high school and a scaled-down Creal Springs School.

"It's likely we won't relieve enrollment pressures in other schools," Hudgens said. "It would meet the barest essential needs and it would also require property taxes to increase."

Carterville won't be able to start construction on the high school.

"You don't start a $25-$30 million project on promises," Bleyer said.

Herrin wouldn't see property tax relief, and Collins said the district may eventually have to consider another property tax hike in the future for expansion if school enrollments continue to climb.

Contact Matt Hawkins at mhawkins@mariondaily.com or 618-993-2626 Ext. 111.

Two mayors not thrilled by proposed tax

Two Williamson County mayors worry about high sales taxes driving customers from the county if voters approve a 1 percent tax increase for school construction purposes.

Both Marion and Herrin currently have 7.5 percent sales taxes, and the proposed tax would raise that to 8.5 percent on all purchased items except groceries, state-titled vehicles and prescription drugs.

"I think it's good for school districts, but I'm concerned about the effect it will have on businesses," Marion mayor Robert Butler said. 

"It will put businesses at a competitive disadvantage with other counties that don't have this additional tax. It's just a matter of looking at the facts. It's good for school construction, but as in anything else there's a price to pay."

Herrin Mayor Vic Ritter doesn't want state government to receive a free pass from this type of legislation.

"All it does is take pressure off legislators," he said. "They should be doing this. Marion, Carterville and Crab Orchard need buildings, but this is not the way to do that. It's a sad situation in Springfield and that needs to be corrected."

Butler echoed Ritter's thoughts on state government, which has put county schools on recent capital funding bills, but no money has been delivered.

"The legislature ducked responsibility because sales tax isn't provided by the state," Butler said. "That's the sad thing. Of course, the state government is so dysfunctional in many ways, so this is just another in a long comedy of errors we're experiencing."