Tuesday, September 03, 2013
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Council heats up over kilowatts and therms

Utility tax discussions -- Part 4

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[September 03, 2013]  Last Tuesday evening, the bulk of the activity at the Lincoln City Council committee of the whole revolved around the possible implementation of a utility tax for consumers within the city of Lincoln.

The tax is part of a plan submitted by Mayor Keith Snyder that would provide a better space for the police and fire departments, increase the funding of the police and fire department pension plans, help cover the costs of sewer improvements in the city, and contribute to the downtown revitalization project.

The last of four members of the community to speak at the meeting was Jeff Short. As he spoke, Short was the only one of the four guests who said he would actually support the tax. He thought it was needed, but he wanted the city to reconsider how it was spent and to focus more on the needs of the city, rather than the wants.

He said the mandated projects should come first, and he said he felt the safety complex was needed, but he felt at least some of the plans for the downtown revitalization project were more "want" than "need."

When Short had finished, Snyder moved immediately into talking about a second ordinance that the council should consider, the "Ordinance in connection with rights and responsibilities related to locally imposed and administered taxes of the city of Lincoln, Illinois."

Snyder said the ordinance is recommended by the Illinois Municipal League to accompany taxes being collected and administered directly by the city.

Bruce Carmitchel was the only alderman to comment on the document, asking why the tax administrator was the city administrator instead of an elected official of the city. City attorney Blinn Bates said the ordinance had been written from a model document, and that portion could be changed if the city so desired.

Soon after, the discussion turned back to the utility tax, and Jonie Tibbs asked how this tax would affect people who are on level-pay plans for their utilities.

Marty Neitzel drew the picture, saying the tax would be applied monthly, and the level-pay amount would not change. She said that meant the consumer could owe more than anticipated in the last month. She added that it would happen only in the first year, though, as when the new level-pay period begins, the figure for monthly bills will be based on the previous year.

Another comment came from Carmitchel, who indicated that at this point he isn't exactly in favor of the tax. But, he told the council he could support the tax if he knew that building a brand-new building for the police and fire departments was the right and only choice.

"I'm not convinced that we have done anything to say there is no other alternative," Carmitchel said.

Snyder reminded him that studies have been done. He said the police department had provided a space needs report, and there had been an architectural study on what is needed.

"I'm not questioning they need better facilities," Carmitchel said. "I'm saying, do we need a brand-new one?"

Snyder said the city has looked at existing locations in the city, but one of the biggest issues is having appropriate space. He said the properties the city has looked at are not going to be disclosed because the city doesn't want the prices to increase on the prospect that the city is interested in purchasing them. He added that there is nothing in the proposal that says the facility will be a brand-new building.

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Treasurer Chuck Conzo spoke up, saying that he, and he knew others, had received a letter from local real estate agent Dan Bock regarding how a similar situation was handled when the county built their existing safety complex. He said the point he wanted to make is that the county had formed a building commission and had a plan in place before they began raising the money through taxation and other means.

Conzo said the city should do the same thing: form a commission, plan the project, then consider raising taxes.

Conzo also commented on something that had occurred at a previous meeting. "Suggestions (were) made at a recent meeting that if people can't afford the utility tax, they should adjust their thermostats accordingly. To me that is the same as saying, freeze in the wintertime and roast in the summer. I think that was a very inappropriate thing to say."

Snyder responded to Conzo, saying, "I trust you were sitting here when Mr. Fulscher said 80 percent of the cost was covered by federal grants, and he also said those grants are no longer available."

Conzo began his reply by saying yes, he had heard, and Snyder broke in and said, "So you did hear him say that?" Conzo confirmed that he did.

Melody Anderson commented, saying that she found Bock's letter intriguing, but the explanation from Fulscher was just for the financing of the basement. She said she did further research and found that grant money had been used, but also they had collected 20 years of rent from the city, and they borrowed $1.2 million.

Tom O'Donohue said that all the aldermen received the letter, but he noted that a week later they all got another letter from Bock saying he had a lot that he could sell the city.

Conzo said he still thought it was backward. The city is coming up with the money, then figuring out how to spend it; when they should be figuring out what they need, then figure out how to pay for it.

Snyder brought the whole matter to a close by saying he wanted the taxpayer rights ordinance and the utility tax ordinance on the agenda for Tuesday night.

David Wilmert asked if the tax administrator would be changed in the first ordinance, and Snyder asked him which person it should be changed to. Wilmert said he thought it should be the mayor.

Snyder then asked, "So if we change that, you'll vote yes," making it sound like it would be a yes vote to both ordinances. Wilmert stumbled on that one. Which brought the entire discussion to a close on a lighter note as the entire council chuckled at Wilmert's reaction.

Both items will be on the Tuesday night voting agenda. The council is expected to vote on the motions, but they do have the right to table any motion if they feel they are not fully prepared for the vote.


Previous articles in series

Council heats up over kilowatts and therms
Utility tax discussions


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