Wednesday, November 02, 2016 - Updated: 9:48 AM
Last year, the Massac County Board of Commissioners formed a citizens’ committee to address problems with our courthouse and analyze possible solutions. The committee recommended the county renovate our courthouse and fund the renovations with a 1percent sales tax that will be on next week’s ballot. I support the committee’s recommendation and will be voting in favor of the referendum.
As the county’s legal counsel, I want to publicly answer some questions I’ve received from voters.
What are the problems with the courthouse?
The problems with the courthouse are extensive and have caused the court system to be moved to the old Banterra Bank building, known as the courthouse annex. To name a few, the problems include water infiltration, plumbing, windows, heating/air, asbestos and mold. The cost of renovation has been estimated at $5 million.
Why can’t the county fund the renovations without the additional sales tax?
The county’s finances currently cannot fund a project of the size needed to renovate the courthouse. The county currently operates on a $4 million budget, $1 million of which is dedicated to the highway department and funded by its own revenue stream. The county is limited by Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (PTELL) on how much it can increase its property tax levy. Other main sources of revenue, like income tax and sales tax, are set by the state.
Why can’t the county continue to use courthouse annex for the court system?
Our court system is currently being operated in the courthouse annex on a temporary basis until December. Because the courtrooms do not meet the minimum standards of the Illinois Supreme Court, the building cannot be used for a court system on a permanent basis. If the referendum passes, the county has approval to continue temporary use of the building until the renovations are completed.
What happens if the sales tax referendum fails?
If the sales tax referendum should fail, the county board has provided a plan for the courthouse renovations to be made in phases over several years. This plan would allow the court system to move back when the first phase is completed and would fund the renovations by making budget cuts. Those cuts have been estimated at 12 percent and would likely mean layoffs, reduced staffing and loss of services.
Will the sales tax generate enough revenue to pay for renovations?
The county has received an estimate of the revenues from the 1 percent sales tax based on prior years’ collections of the county sales tax. The estimate shows the sales tax would generate sufficient revenue for the renovations. In fact, if the amount received remains similar to prior years, the county will be able to pay off any bond before the sales tax expires by law in 15 years.
Why should the citizens “reward” the county commissioners and give the county additional tax dollars?
The condition of the courthouse is attributable to the county’s financial condition. Other southern Illinois counties have had similar problems. Two counties, Union and Johnson, have passed a 1 percent sales tax to address their courthouse issues. Also, voting “yes” on the referendum will not “reward” the county commissioners. The county commissioners are not directly affected by the tax. Their pay will not be raised if the tax passes. They will not be laid off or lose pay if it fails. A “no” vote will punish the employees who are laid off, who have their pay reduced or who do not have adequate support to assist them in doing their jobs. Voting “no” will, most importantly, punish us as citizens of Massac County. Budget cuts mean fewer law enforcement officers, fewer services and possibly having to close the jail.
How can a conservative such as yourself support an increase in taxes?
No one wants additional taxes. Taxes should be kept as low as possible to adequately fund government. We as a county have done much to limit taxes with PTELL. We must also acknowledge that taxes serve a purpose. They fund our police, our roads, our courts, and our schools. Conservatives believe in local control, meaning that government decisions should be made at the level closest to the people affected. If taxes are raised, it is best if that decision is made at the local level, and not the state or federal government. Conservatives also believe the cost of government should be paid by those who use it. With a sales tax, the cost of government is not only borne by property owners or local residents, but will be shared by people who visit our community. They would assist us in paying for renovations to the building they also use.