On May 7, Urbana voters for the third time will vote on a continuing additional 0.6 percent income tax for fire, police and EMS services. This would raise the current tax for these services from 0.4 percent to one percent. It would bring the new total city income tax to 2 percent. Voters turned down the proposed increase in two previous elections.
The city council on Jan. 15 unanimously passed an ordinance stating safety services no longer can be adequately funded by the current four-tenths rate due to reductions made at the state level of government. If passed by voters, the tax will take effect on July 1.
According to the city administration, the overall goal of the proposed earned income tax increase is financial sustainability for the long-term fiscal health of the city and to maintain the city’s ability to maintain the basic services that residents demand. Over the last decade, the city has lost in excess of $2.5 million in revenue due to reductions made by the state legislature, including a reduction in Local Government Funds, elimination of the Estate Tax and the accelerated phase-out of promised reimbursement for loss of revenues due to the repeal of the Tangible Personal Property Tax.
“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.”
Similar ballot issues were rejected by voters during both the May and November elections in 2018. City council members decided that the tax increase was essential and that a more effective campaign might succeed in convincing voters of their viewpoint.
“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.”
Calls for service to the Police Division increased nearly 10 percent from 12,913 in 2010 to 14,279 in 2017 with drug offenses, drug arrests and related crime growing five to 10 times the rates of 2010. Calls for service to the Fire Division increased nearly 17 percent from 2,295 in 2011 to 2,756 in 2017 with the largest number of calls and growth in calls attributed to EMS calls.
“There’s an unspoken rule that any response to domestic violence should be at least two members of law enforcement, for officer safety and so forth,” said Mark Feinstein, city law director and municipal court prosecutor. “I can’t tell you the number of cases where there’s one officer around. Why? Not enough people. I can’t tell you the number of cases where we’ve had issues here at court where there’s no officer in the building … The shortage on law enforcement, I just want to make sure everyone understands, it’s not just the opioid epidemic. That’s very real, but when as the prosecuting attorney I’m seeing members of law enforcement by themselves responding to domestic violence cases … to me that is a very concrete example of the necessity of increased dedicated resources for police and fire.”
“When I was in the military I was a military police sergeant, and I would not let one of my officers go into a domestic situation. It had to be two,” said council member Pat Thackery. “Of course the military had the resources. All I had to do was say I need two people and they’d get up. We don’t have that luxury here. People get hurt. It’s concerned me for some time that our police officers don’t have backup. If a police officer gets into a situation he can’t get on his radio and say ‘I need help’ because there’s nobody on the other end of the mic. They have to handle it themselves. If I’d had to do that with my squad, as a sergeant in the military, I’d have been putting so many people at risk it would have been ridiculous. So I can relate to that. We’re just waiting for it to happen one of these days, and I hope it doesn’t.”
At a public hearing on Jan. 8, Urbana Police Chief Matt Lingrell and Urbana Fire Chief Dean Ortlieb said their divisions need 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 expressed appreciation for Urbana City School’s willingness to pay 67 percent of the current school resource officer’s salary, but added that the officer must split his time between buildings.
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 now gives more thought to the safety of her community.
Council member Ray Piper, the sole dissenting vote against putting the tax increase on the ballot last November, said that he found the speeches by the police and fire chiefs persuasive.
Council member Dwight Paul, who sponsored the January ordinance, said 58 percent of the general fund goes toward fire/police/EMS. City Finance Director Chris Boettcher advised it is higher than that.
“The objective of the legislation is the same as it was before, basically to increase the 0.4 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.”
“Yes, stabilizing the police fund … there is a side-benefit that it would free up some funds for possibly doing some other things that we need to get done,” he added. “In particular I just go around the city and you see infrastructure deterioration no matter where you go, and the situation has been for a long, long time that things just get kicked down the road. Funding is funding, it takes money to get it done, and at the end of the day it’s dollars and cents, plain and simple, and unfortunately there is no real good way to do it. People are going to have to pay one way or the other, and this is just the mechanism that we thought would be the most fair and the best way to try to deal with it.”
By law, 100 percent of the police/fire/EMS levy must be spent on police/fire/EMS.
“The principle behind this is to take some of the burden off the general fund by having dedicated funds going into the police and fire fund in order to withstand and stand up against the thing we experienced in 2009 and 2010 when you have a downturn in the economy,” said city administrator Kerry Brugger. “It’s going to happen again, I don’t know when or how, but it’s going to happen and we’re going to be in the same situation we were in about eight or nine years ago. What this will allow us is to keep the city’s steady stream coming in to police and fire and not necessarily have everyone trying to feed out of one trough.”
During the Jan. 15 meeting when the ordinance was passed, local minister Brian Wonn read a correspondence approved at the Champaign County Ministerial Association meeting on Jan. 10.
“Although we are supportive of adequately resourcing the Urbana Fire and Police Departments, we are concerned over the proposed increase in the earned income tax for the citizens of Urbana as discussed at the January 8, 2019 city council meeting,” read Wonn. “In particular, we believe the 43% increase in taxes paid (going from 1.4% to 2%) would have a disproportionate impact on lower income individuals who are already struggling to cover their household expenses.”
Wonn said that the challenge of trying to cover increasing costs with limited resources is experienced by all government entities, businesses, organizations and individuals to varying degrees, and that overall the Ministerial Association was thankful for the good work done in managing funds entrusted to the care of the city. The correspondence suggested pausing from consideration of the proposed tax increase to allow time for further study of the relevant issues in cooperation with other community partners.
Responding to the letter, council member Pat Thackery said he kept hearing that there were other options, but that nobody had been able to tell him what those options are.
Christopher Selmek can be reached at 937-508-2304