BY SHELBY NIEHAUS
Communities across Fayette county have been preparing for the April elections with meetings, fliers, and outreach concerning one item on the ballot: the County School Facilities Sales Tax. In an effort to prepare our readers for election time, the St. Elmo Banner offers a brief primer to the so-called “one-cent tax” and some of the available Fayette county information concerning the tax.
Facilities Tax 101
The County School Facilities Sales Tax, also known as the CSFT, the one percent tax, or the one-cent tax, is a sales tax hike designed to help remove part of the school funding burden from property taxpayers while protecting fixed-income residents. Since passage of a 2007 law allowing counties to vote upon a one-cent tax, several Illinois counties have approved a sales tax raise: Bond, Champaign, Coles, Jasper, Richland, Sangamon, and Shelby counties, notably, have approved a one-cent tax in recent years, among 47 others across the state. In the one-cent tax’s birthplace, Iowa, it is used state-wide.
Other counties, such as Effingham, Madison, St. Clair, Tazewell, and Vermilion, have brought the measure to vote at least once and defeated it. At least one of these counties, Effingham, is voting again on the tax in April’s elections.
Late in 2018, school boards across the county adopted resolutions about the one-cent tax. In adopting the resolution, each Board instructed their superintendent to pass the matter along to the Fayette county regional superintendent, who then certified the question to the county clerk.
In order for the one-cent tax measure to appear on county ballots, schools representing at least half of the county’s student population needed to adopt the resolution—Vandalia and Brownstown’s adoptions in September pushed the matter to vote, and the St. Elmo Board adopted the matter in October. After the resolutions were adopted by these three Boards, though, the matter left the school boards’ hands and passed into the community’s hands.
If the one-cent tax is passed, qualifying in-county purchases would be applied a tax of one percent, or one cent per dollar. For example, fuel purchases, prepared and fast food, textiles, appliances, toys, and other similar purchases will be taxed. Groceries, medication (both prescription and over-the-counter), vehicles, farm implements, and currently untaxed services and purchases will not be taxed.
The facilities taxes, once generated, will be distributed to county schools based on each school’s student population. Schools may only use these on improvement of school facilities or “for retiring new or current building bonds.” Eligible fund uses include construction of new facilities like athletic fields, buildings, and greenhouses; renovations; security and safety improvements; engineering; and energy efficiency upgrades.
Building the Future: A Case for the One-Cent
Many teachers and administrators will tell you that schools both public and private could always use more cash, especially as rural school districts age while supporting populations move away. Brownstown superintendent Mike Shackelford, for instance, comments that “[Brownstown’s] facilities are good,” but that a number of small routine maintenance projects could be taken care of quickly with the extra revenue from a one-cent tax—with school buildings constructed 75 to 80 years ago, the routine maintenance becomes pressing over time. A good portion of the necessary projects come from Health/Life Safety surveys, which list “changes or projects, established by architects and approved by ISBE and the ROE, needed to keep the district buildings in compliance with state and school code.”
Shackelford estimates that Brownstown would receive $165,000-170,000 yearly. For illustration, in 2017 the district received $380,000 in federal funding, just under ten percent of its $3.9 million funding for the year.
His hopes for minor projects aside, Shackelford stresses that the entire one-cent tax matter, from information gathering to voting to the post-election period, will be “in the hands of the community.” If the one-cent tax is passed, all projects would be decided upon by the Board of Education. “We… want to be transparent as a district,” he noted.
Superintendent Healy’s office in St. Elmo offers a front-and-back informational flier about the one-cent tax. A portion of this flier comments “if this proposal passes, our district will have the ability to keep our facilities up-to-date and in good working order without a total reliance on property taxes.” Healy estimates that the St. Elmo district would receive around $200,000 annually from the one-cent tax, which would be used “to maintain and upgrade school facilities,” as well as “[enhancing] school security and safety, and [completing] needed Health/Life Safety projects.”
The aforementioned flier also comments that the one-cent tax is “in part an answer to [the call for property tax relief]. …By passing this proposal, much of the burden for funding public education facility improvements will be shifted to a sales tax.”
Death by a Million Pinpricks: A Case Against the One-Cent
No issue is black and white, least of all the one-cent tax. Detractors of the one-cent tax often comment, as major one-cent tax opponent Illinois Policy did in September of last year, that “Illinoisians already shoulder the highest combined state and local sales tax rate in the Midwest.” Illinois Policy reported that Springfield residents’ sales tax rate would spike up to 9.75 percent with the one-cent tax, with the South Central Business District peaking at 10.75 percent. (WICS and WSRP reported two months later that Sangamon county voters approved the increase with 53.47 percent of votes.)
Additionally, though at least one district (Brownstown) has applied for a property tax relief grant, no property tax measures are slated to appear on Fayette county’s April ballot at present, according to the County Clerk’s office on Friday.
Preparing for Elections
At the end of the day, the one-cent tax comes down to the voters. The St. Elmo Banner encourages the public to continue looking for information about the one-cent tax. Informational fliers will be available at the Brownstown and St. Elmo Unit Offices until election time. Finally, two Board of Education meetings for Brownstown and St. Elmo remain before election time; both Boards eagerly welcome taxpayers at open sessions.