Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series taking a look at the proposed 1 percent school facility sales tax that will be on the March 18 primary ballot.
As a former school board member, Steve Donaldson understands that school districts have building needs. But as chairman of the Effingham County Republican Party, the Beecher City man doesn’t believe the proposed school facility sales tax is the way to go.
“I realize the state has put school districts in a world of hurt,” said Donaldson, former president of the Beecher City Unit 20 Board of Education. “I just don’t think this is the proper fix.
“I believe if a school district has that type of need, they will be able to show their voters that the need exists.”
Donaldson said he would prefer school districts approach their voters with major building needs on a case-by-case basis. He’s not alone in that thinking.
Among the issues opponents have cited is that the tax abatements are not guaranteed, because sitting school boards cannot bind future boards to promises they make and there is no mechanism in place from preventing the state from withholding state capital funds from counties that pass the sales tax.
Donaldson said there’s a trust issue for many opponents.
“For me, do you trust Springfield to hold up their end of the bargain?” he asked.
Effingham resident Brian Milleville recently said he is particularly wary because of the lack of a sunset clause in the 2007 legislation that gave counties the ability to seek voter approval for the tax to be imposed.
“The sales tax is permanent, but the property tax relief they are promising is not permanent,” he said.
Milleville noted that property tax collections increase proportionately to increases in equalized assessed valuation within a school district. He said that will be the case whether the tax swap is approved or not, adding that future school boards are not obligated to continue policies developed by previous boards.
Milleville said the tax swap proposal would also affect Effingham city residents in a way that those living outside the city would not feel.
“You would have the City of Effingham being taxed to subsidize county schools,” he said.
Milleville also questions the ethics of allowing school districts to bypass voters when spending money on major projects.
“You are basically giving the school districts a permanent revenue stream that would not force them to ever come back to the voters,” he said. “Why can’t the voters have a say in spending x amount of dollars?”
Milleville noted that advocates of a major building project may not always tell the truth.
“Look at the rhetoric that was used to pass the Effingham High School referendum (in the late 1990s),” he said. “The current junior high (old high school) was supposed to be unusable but — lo and behold — it’s been good enough to use as a junior high for the last 15 years.”
Effingham County opponents of the tax initiative might look to a neighboring county, where rural Shelbyville resident Carl Miller has led successful opposition twice in Shelby County. Miller, who is retired from a cable manufacturing company, believes governmental entities should budget ahead of time for capital expenditures.
“We always projected these things in industry,” Miller said.”We planned these things on a budget.”
Miller also takes a dim view of the “double-barrel” bonding that opponents of the tax initiative decry.
“If the school district defaults on its bond obligations, state law says the school district can raise our property taxes to make up the shortfall,” he said.
Miller also said the lack of a limit that school boards can collect, as well as the lack of a sunset clause, are other causes for concern. While counties can set a tax rate of no more than 1 percent under the initiative, there is no limit to how much school districts can accumulate in the special building fund mandated by the legislation.
“You lose control when you don’t set a limit or have a sunset,” he said.
Shelby County voters have twice rejected the tax initiative. Miller said he hopes the third time is not the charm.
Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @EDNBGrimes.