The Urbana City Council on Tuesday held a public hearing on a proposed tax increase prior to a regular meeting. The council heard the second of three readings concerning the tax during the regular meeting. The proposal is an additional six-tenths of one percent tax on income to the current additional four-tenths rate, establishing a new additional tax rate at one percent.
According to the ordinance, safety services no longer can be adequately funded by the four-tenths rate due to reductions made at the state level of government. Dwight Paul, who is sponsoring this ordinance, said that currently 58 percent of the general fund goes toward fire/police/EMS. City Finance Director Chris Boettcher advised it was actually higher than that.
“The objective of the legislation is the same as it was before, basically to increase the .4 to an even one percent, and that would reduce the stress on the general fund to about 28 percent,” said Paul. ”The general fund will still have to kick in a significant amount to cover costs. The objective is it’s not going to be a pile of money that’s going to go in addition to what’s already budgeted, it’s not going to go for raises or anything crazy like that, it’s basically going to dedicate a one percent income stream for police/fire/EMS.”
“The only thing that I can say, talking to other mayors around the state, is that since we have lost our local government fund and the estate tax I think we’ve lost somewhere around $2.5 million since this all came down,” Urbana Mayor Bill Bean said. “We’re not the only city in this predicament. There’s a lot of other cities going through this and having the same discussions that we’re having now. If we still had the local government fund and the estate tax we might be just fine, but we don’t, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get it back, either. This is where we are, and we really do need the funds.”
Urbana voters rejected similar ballot measures during the last November and May elections. If this ordinance is passed after three readings, council will next consider a resolution putting the issue on the ballot in spring of 2019. If passed by voters, the tax will take effect on July 1.
Urbana resident Russ Bartley first approached council to say that he felt the ordinance amounted to false advertising because council was saying the increased income tax would be used only for police and fire when in fact they were increasing the amount of money available in the general fund. Paul disputed that they were being deceptive and asked how they could make it more clear to the general public what they were hoping to accomplish.
“You’ve hired two employees last year, you’ve also bought another building, which I don’t know why you need another building,” Bartley said. “Companies don’t do this. Companies lay off people, and I’m in a company that’s done that. If you don’t have money you lay off people, you don’t go out and spend more money that you don’t have, and then ask for more money from the company.”
“You’ve got certain obligations that your general fund is supposed to be able to perform for the community,” said council member Pat Thackery. “The general fund is supposed to be able to do certain things, and it hasn’t been able to perform those functions because it’s being bled off to the police/fire/EMS. So those functions that it’s supposed to be doing it can’t afford to do… municipal finance doesn’t work like private business finance. Monies have to be used for specific things… Buying a building has nothing to do with whether we have the money to buy a building because the funds for buying a building are totally separate.”
Bartley also asked how much money they were going to spend promoting this ordinance. Boettcher responded that no city money went toward the election campaign, which would be funded entirely from private funds.
Urbana resident Steve Brune next approached the council to tell them of several feelings and thoughts he had perceived coming from people he had talked to. The first was that people had said it was rude to come to the voters three consecutive times with the same measure without making any changes.
“To the point of putting it on the ballot so many times, I struggle with that, and the reason I’m for going at it again is because the first time we hit the ballot we were very unorganized, we were hasty, maybe we put it out sooner than we should have, and hopefully we learned from that,” said council member Doug Hoffman. “We regrouped, we tried to reword, we wanted to make sure we’re getting the truth out… and at the ballot we saw a pretty substantial increase in the number of people who were for it once we got some of the information out. We have a real issue as a council and as a city trying to get information to our constituents and to the people living in Urbana… If it had gone the other way I would have thought that this isn’t what people want, but the fact that it improved substantially is why I will support it one more time. If it gets shot down in flames and the voters say no, then we’re going to have to look at other options.”
Brune’s other concerns were that it seemed insensitive to buy a piece of property at the same time they were trying to get more money, and that it was disingenuous to tout the money as only going to police and fire when it would result in more money for the general fund. He also said people had come to him wondering why the city doesn’t try to increase their tax base by attracting new residents rather than increase the tax rate.
Bartley said he didn’t feel the city had done enough to cut costs, such as by asking employees to pay more for their own health insurance, before coming to the public for more money.
Urbana Police Chief Matt Lingrell and Urbana Fire Chief Dean Ortlieb also took the opportunity to speak at this public hearing to explain why their departments needed more money.
“We currently still have an open homicide from 2011 that I’m sad to say we don’t give a whole lot of work to, because we don’t have the staff,” said Lingrell. “I’ve closed my investigative unit just so I could take those two officers and put them back into the patrol unit, so we can have safe services on the three patrol shifts that just answer the calls throughout the city. By closing that, I no longer have a unit that deals with high profile or long range cases such as homicides, suicides, rapes, sexual assaults, robberies, and covert drug investigations. Additionally, I no longer have specialized officers that are assigned to work the two most important segments in my mind in this community, elderly population… and a juvenile officer.”
Lingrell added that for many years there was not a school resource officer, until January 2017 when a school shooting at West Liberty-Salem High School prompted a public outcry for a school resource officer. He thanks Urbana City School’s Superintendent Charles Thiel for being willing to pay for 67 percent of the current school resource officer’s salary, but added that he had to split his time between buildings.
Near the end of the city council meeting, council clerk Amy Deere said that she had a child who was a student at West Liberty-Salem on the day of the shooting, and that as a result she now gave much more thought to the safety of her community.
Council member Ray Piper said that he was originally opposed to the tax increase, but that he found the speeches by the police and fire chiefs very persuasive.
Christopher Selmek can be reached at 937-508-2304