After a split 5-4 vote, the Effingham County Board voted to add a quarter-cent public safety tax referendum to the ballot for the April Consolidated election. The proposed tax increase, that would free up public safety funds for other uses, will be left up to the public to decide on. If the referendum passes, it will push sales tax up to 6.75-percent in the county. With school districts also proposing a 1-percent referendum, that number could go up to 7.75-percent.
Yes votes came from David Campbell, Rob Arnold, Doug McCain, Lloyd Foster, and Jim Niemann. John Perry, Karen Luchtefeld, Joe Thoele, and Jeff Simpson voted no.
The county has been dealing with a deficit in the 2017 budget along with increasing costs, such as an annual $140,000 increase to employee payroll each year. However, they will soon have some additional funds available after the County Jail has been fully paid for next year. Finishing those payments will open up an additional $1-million each year for the county.
Looking at projects going forward, Tax and Finance Committee Chairman Rob Arnold, who voted yes for the tax referendum, said that the county is facing around $450,000 in various projects, including roof repairs, new trucks for animal control, new squad cars, increased transparency and more. On top of that Arnold is proposing that county build it its savings from around $1.7-million to $5-million within the next five years.
“I want to build that savings up as quickly as we possibly can,” Arnold said. If approved, the new tax would net the county around $1.4-million, enough to complete several projects and build county savings. The tax will appear on the April ballot with four year expiration date, meaning that it will cease unless renewed by the current board at that time.
There was discussion that if the referendum passed it would be grounds to possibly abate real estate taxes in the future.
County Board Chairman Jim Niemann participated in vote as tiebreaker, voting yes for the tax. “I’ve never had a problem with giving the voters the option to decide on financial situations like that,” Niemann said. “So many of these things are left to their elected representatives, but when you have the opportunity to put a question before the voters, I’ve always thought that was a good idea,” he continued.
Members of the public sounded off against the tax referendum. John Gardner was concerned that the county has “gone beyond taxing from necessity.”
Another audience member, Anthony Jewett, suggested that the county has people on the payroll who are “dead weight” and suggested that firing them would help prevent the county from having to tax more. Jewett declined to specify who, or what departments, he was referring to. Niemann said that he has not had any reports from department heads, nor witnessed what Jewett was describing.
Joe Thoele did vote for the referendum in committee but voted no in the full board. He said he would rather wait and see what happens on the state level before adding an additional tax. If the state reduced the the available funds to the county, Thoele said that he would reconsider. However, he felt that the county would have sufficient funds after the jail was paid off. “There is some money we can put into reserves,” he said. “We can start building up them reserves with what we got right now.” At his point, the choice is up to the voters.