City council signs off on new taxes

Submitted by Carbondale Times on

Geoffrey Ritter
Carbondale Times   

The city council signed off on a slew of new consumer-based taxes Tuesday night, all of them purportedly aimed at shoring up skyrocketing police and fire pension obligations and funding a backlog of city infrastructure projects.

In total, city leaders approved a 4 percent tax on package liquor sales, a 4 percent tax on prepared food and beverage sales, and a 4-cents-per-gallon increase in the tax on motor fuel — all of it, taken together, in expectation of raising about $4.8 million in additional
annual revenue for the city.

The council also voted to renew an existing 1-cent-per-gallon tax on motor fuel instituted in 2005 that was set to sunset at the end of this month and generates about $130,000 annually.

Mayor Mike Henry said the city has a long-standing list of community improvement projects projected to cost about $9.5 million, as well as a backlog of street and sidewalk improvement projects costing
almost $37 million. In addition, the city is still on the hook for a $40 million pension liability.

On top of all that, Henry said the city has devoted significant energy to the Downtown Master Plan, and he wants to see the city actually put money behind it.

“I absolutely will not have it put on the shelf and become outdated,” Henry said. “We are doing our best to be good stewards of the public’s money.”

At an occasionally disjointed meeting that stretched for several hours, however, none of the measures passed easily or without notable wrangling. Each of the three tax proposals passed with votes of 5-2, although no single roll call was identical to any other.

Navreet Kang and Lee Fronabarger voted against the increased motor fuel tax, while Jessica Bradshaw and Carolin Harvey rejected the tax on food and beverages. Kang and Henry voted against the package liquor tax after concerns were raised about possibly high implementation costs at the Neighborhood Co-op Grocery, as well as the possibility of allowing package liquor sales at convenience stores in the future and whether those businesses would face the same technological challenges as the Co-op.

Surprisingly few local business owners attended the meeting, with Fat Patties owner Lance Jack providing the most vigorous objection to how the food and beverage tax in particular was being implemented.

Jack railed against the council for not evenly implementing the food and beverage tax, noting that it excludes convenience stores that sell pizza, for example, or grocery stores that offer salad bars.

Jack said that while some larger restaurants can easily absorb a new 4 percent tax, smaller operators will face steeper challenges.

“The small business owner definitely gets hit harder than the larger chains,” Jack said. “We’re not spreading the pain. We’re sticking the little guy more than everyone else.”

Consultant to assist with planning for 2017 eclipse   
The council also authorized City Manager Gary Williams to enter into a consulting agreement with RayGun LLC of Carbondale, operated by Diane Regan, to help with planning for the Aug. 21, 2017, total solar eclipse, an astronomical event for which Carbondale will be a global focal point.

Area officials currently are estimating that as many as 50,000 additional people could flock to the city for the eclipse, which will be the first of its kind in the continental United States since 1979. Charting a path from the west coast to the east coast, the eclipse will reach its point of greatest duration at a point just south of Carbondale. In addition, the eclipse will occur on the first day of SIU’s fall 2017 semester.

Interim SIUC Chancellor Brad Colwell spoke at a press conference late last week to detail the university’s early preparations for the event. Carbondale will again be in the path of a total solar eclipse in April 2024, leading to the branding of the area as the “Eclipse Crossroads of America.”

“Collectively, these issues present potential logistical challenges that warrant the use of a dedicated coordinator,” according to the council’s agenda item.

City seeks IDOT grant to build new bike path
The council also authorized the submittal of an application to the Illinois Department of Transportation for grant funding to help build a new bicycle path that would run along the abandoned railroad bed between New Era Road and Oakland Avenue.

As proposed, the project would consist of an 8-foot-wide concrete path that would include lighting, bicycle racks and a 50-foot bridge.

The city is requesting $708,940 through IDOT’s Transportation Enhancement Program to assist with lighting and construction costs. The ITEP program could provide up to 50 percent of the lighting costs and 80 percent of construction costs.

Overall, the project is projected to cost about $1.13 million.