Area voters had a chance to hear more about the proposed County Schools Facility Tax which will be on the ballot during the March 17 election last week when Hoopeston Area School District officials spoke at the Rankin United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall.
Hoopeston Area Superintendent Robert Richardson said his goal with the discussion was not to sway anyone’s vote, but simply to provide information so that voters could make an informed decision when they cast their vote.
“My goal here tonight is purely informational,” he said. “I’m not here to persuade anyone who would not be in favor of this, I just want everyone to be informed when they step into that booth.”
County School Facility Occupation Tax
Richardson said the County School Facility Occupation Tax, usually referred to as a sales tax, was first enacted in 2007 and was approved by Champaign County in 2009.
“If you go to Champaign County and you spend money there, you’re contributing to their schools,” he said. “We’re hoping we can reciprocate that.”
The first step in getting the sales tax on the ballot was taken a few months ago, Richardson said, when all but one of the Vermilion County boards of education approved passed a resolution placing the tax on the ballot for voter approval.
To get on the ballot, Richardson said, boards that represent more than 50 percent of the county’s student population needed to approve the resolution.
The sales tax needs a simple majority to pass, he said, and, if it does pass, the county would begin collecting the tax in July and school districts would receive the first of their monthly payments in October.
What gets taxed?
Richardson described the tax will be implemented and what items will and won’t be taxed as a result.
“Items that currently get taxed will be subject to the County Schools Facility Sales Tax,” he said. “If it’s not currently in there, items that are taxed [at the current rate], we would not add this tax to it.”
Richardson said items such as groceries, medicine, titled-vehicles, agricultural inputs such as seed and fertilizer and farm equipment will not be subject to this sales tax.
Richardson gave some specific examples to clarify how the tax will be implemented.
“$100 for groceries, you’re not going to see an increase. I’m not going to say you’re not going to be taxed because they tax you currently,” he said. “What we’d say is there’s not going to be an increase if this would pass.”
He gave the example of $9 spent on fast food and how, should the sales tax pass, customers would see a nine cent increase on their meal or a 75 cent increase on a purchase of $75 worth of gas.
However, he said, the purchase of a $25,000 SUV would see no tax increase under this sales tax.
How the money would be distributed
Richardson also outlined how the money generated from this tax would be distributed to county schools.
He said the money would first go to the Illinois Department of Revenue, which would take its two percent cut, after which it would be sent to the Vermilion County Regional Office of Education and distributed on a per resident pupil basis on a monthly basis.
Richardson said the per resident pupil basis means that only students that live in Vermilion County are counted when calculating what each school district will receive.
Richardson outlined specifically what the sales tax funds could be used for should the measure pass.
Revenue generated by the County Facility Sales Tax can only be spent on specific types of projects that include building repairs, facility improvements, safety and security, paying off debt assumed to improve facilities and hiring school resource officers and/or mental health providers.
The money can’t be used for salary and benefit expenses for teachers/staff, pension contributions, computers and textbooks.
Richardson said all spending decisions regarding the funding from the sales tax are made locally by the district board of education and these decisions are not subject to the governor, speaker of the house or general assembly.
However, he said, the Hoopeston Area Board of Education has decided that, should the sales tax be approved, they will want to get input from their stakeholders, local taxpayers, on how the money will be spent.
“How do you want us to spend this money?” he asked.
Richardson said there have been several areas that have been identified by the board as priorities for the sales tax revenue should it pass.
One of the top priorities mentioned by Richardson involves installing air conditioning in Maple and John Greer.
“Priority number one is air conditioning those facilities,” he said.
Beyond that, Richardson pointed to modernizing the HVAC systems at Hoopeston Area Middle School and Hoopeston Area High School, improving efficiencies and safety measures with windows and doors at district buildings, lessening the burden on property taxes and address aging facilities and building improvements.
Richardson said Hoopeston Area School District is slated to receive an estimated $430,000 a year from the sales tax, if it passes.
He said there will always be building improvements and building repairs that will be needed, but he said the district will be able to set a certain amount of that yearly total aside, after they address their top priority projects, and use that money to keep property taxes at a reasonable rate.
He said they can use that sales tax revenue to pay for debt and avoid further property tax related debt in the future.
District Business Manager/Transportation Director Mark Eighner said four years ago, when the governor was considering a property tax freeze, Hoopeston Area passed a bond for $900,000.
He said every school district in Vermilion County and around the state followed suit and created some debt due to the fact that the governor might implement a property tax freeze.
“We created some debt, Hoopeston had had no debt, just to secure that opportunity for future boards,” he said.
Eighner said the school district just completed a major project at Maple: installing a new boiler that cost around $730,000.
“It does cost quite a bit of money to do these upgrades in these buildings,” he said.
Eighner said he asked the company that installed the boiler at Maple to provide an estimate for air conditioning Maple.
He said they wanted to put a Chiller in at school, feeling it would be more economical than individual classroom units, and provided estimates ranging from $1.4-$1.7 million.
Eighner said the district doesn’t levy enough in its building and grounds fund to ever cover that cost. He added that the district is getting other estimates to look at more feasible options, such as individual units, to address the air conditioning in Maple and John Greer.
Eighner said the district’s taxable rate has always been around $4.63, one of the lowest tax rates in Vermilion County. The bond pushed the tax rate up to $5.04.
However, Eighner said, all of the other schools in the county made similar adjustments, so Hoopeston Area is still one of the lowest tax rates in the county.
If the county schools facility passed, Eighner said, taxpayers would see some tax relief as the money generated by the tax would allow the district to pay off the bond and return to the $4.63 tax rate.
A more equitable tax
Richardson said a sales tax is the most equitable form of tax because everyone pays for it, not just the property owners.
He pointed out that every time someone from Vermilion County spends money in Champaign County they’re contributing to Champaign County schools, but when people from Champaign County come to Vermilion County and spend, they’re not contributing anything to Vermilion County schools.
Eighner said that listed how much some of the Champaign County schools have generated through the sales tax over the last four years: Champaign Unit 4 received more than $30 million, Mahomet-Seymour Schools $9.2 million, Tolono $4.9 million.
“It’s starting to become the haves and the have-nots,” he said. “When you go into the Champaign school districts, you’re seeing projects and changes to the buildings.”
Richardson said Champaign County schools have received more than $179 million from this sales tax since 2010.
Richardson clarified that the sales tax revenue would be generated throughout all of Vermilion County before it’s disbursed. School districts wouldn’t be limited to just the money that is generated in their district.
“It’s thrown into a pot and then divvied up by student enrollment,” he said.
Richardson said the sales tax is the most equitable type of tax since it applies to everyone, not just property owners.
He said the $430,000 Hoopeston Area School District is slated to receive annually does not factor in any kind of revenue generated by the casino project that may come to Danville in the future.
Richardson concluded his speech by stating that more than half, 56, of Illinois counties have passed the County School Facility Tax and encouraging area residents to make their opinions on the sales tax heard by voting March 17.
To see a video of the full discussion, visit www.thehoopestonchronicle.com.
District Officials Weigh-In
Hoopeston Area Board of Education President Dave McFadden and Hoopeston Education Association President Dylan Swank were asked by The Chronicle to comment on the proposed tax.
“The County School Facility Tax will provide our school district with a tremendous opportunity to address its aging facilities without the property tax burden many districts commonly need,” McFadden said. “It’s one of the greatest things we can do for our community members, students, and future school district leaders.”
“The Hoopeston Education Association is an organization that exists to advocate for educators so that we can advocate more strongly and more effectively for our students; passing the one percent sales tax is a clear example of doing what’s best for our kids and our schools,” Swank said. ”Because this money can’t be used for teacher salary, voters can rest assured that the funds our district might be fortunate enough to take in — close to half a million dollars every year — will go directly to improving the educational experience for students here at Hoopeston Area. The HEA supports our students, so the HEA supports this tax.
“Obviously, the building needs in our district are pretty clear,” Swank continued. ”We need air conditioning in our elementary buildings, and the board has committed to making that need a priority with any new funds. Looking more long term, these funds allow the district more flexibility in decision-making — a new roof on the high school, for example, would no longer have to come at the cost of new textbooks. More hypothetically, a new addition might no longer drive an increase in property tax rates.”