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New sales tax emerges as Kane County plan to fund mandated justice reforms

An ad hoc committee of Kane County Board members is pushing for a countywide sales tax referendum on November ballots. The tax would help fund expected cost increases for the sheriff and court system stemming from state-mandated justice reforms.

But there is already skepticism about getting enough votes from the full county board to place the question on the ballot. And there is even more skepticism about Kane County voters approving a new sales tax during rampant inflation.

Kane County is one of five pilot sites in Illinois that will start seeing the impact this January of the SAFE-T Act set of justice reforms approved by state lawmakers.

The cost for the county to implement the changes, which include the end of cash bail, is more than $20 million over the next three fiscal years. That doesn’t include raising the salaries of current judicial system employees. The county continues to lose its existing staff to neighboring counties that all pay more for the same jobs.

With all 24 county board seats up for re-election this year following redistricting, the board punted on finding a solution to pay for those costs until after the June primary. County Board Chair Corinne Pierog formed an ad hoc committee of board members to find that solution.

This week, the committee decided on a plan that would raise the county’s property tax levy in each of the next three years by as much as 5%. That would mark a major departure from a decade of keeping the county’s property tax levy flat.

“We have taken care of the property taxpayers of Kane County, but I daresay we have not taken care of Kane County,” Pierog said of the county’s recent tax levies.

The board would pair those tax increases with the creation of a 0.5% county sales tax with proceeds legally earmarked for public safety costs. The county board does not need voter approval for the property tax increases called for under the plan. It does, however, need voter approval to create the sales tax.

In suggesting the plan, several board members (including Vern Tepe and Michelle Gumz) predicted they’d be voted out of office this November. The key to avoiding that fate will be explaining to voters that the county cannot legally use the $200 million in federal COVID relief money it received to solve non-COVID budget gaps or new expenses created by justice reforms.

But the debate proved that convincing the more conservative board members to put the question on November ballots will be equally difficult.

“The voting public is going to say you got ($200 million); I’m paying $6 a gallon for gas, and now you want to increase my sales tax,” said board member John Martin. “I don’t see it happening.”

But even board member Bill Lenert, the lone “no” vote on the plan from the committee, conceded the county needs the new sales tax.

“The only way to sustain our budget is if the public supports the sales tax increase,” Lenert said. “If the public is for it, I’m for it. I just think it’s going to be a very tough sell right now.”

The board’s finance committee will be the next measuring stick for the plan. It will take a vote on the sales tax referendum on Wednesday, July 27.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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