Springfield income tax increase goes back to the polls in May

8:55 p.m Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017 Politics

Springfield residents will vote again on an income tax increase this spring, months after a similar proposal was rejected at the polls.

City commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to put the increase back on the ballot. Both supporters and opponents of the proposal spoke out about it at their meeting in City Hall Forum.

The 5½-year income tax increase will be placed on the May 2 primary ballot. The income tax rate in Springfield would increase from 2 percent to 2.4 percent, if voters approved it. A similar proposal was rejected by 227 votes in November.

If approved, the tax would generate an additional $6.7 million annually through 2022. For a worker making $30,000 a year, the tax would cost an additional $10 per month.

About $2 million would go toward a street improvement fund. More permanent improvement money will also allow the city to update its aging police and fire fleet.

It would also allow the city to reopen both Fire Station No. 5 and the police substation on Johnny Lytle Avenue, both of which closed on Jan. 1 due to the budget cuts, as well as reinstate overtime for police and firefighters.

The rest would pay for a Safe Streets Task Force, a special police unit to combat violent crime and heroin abuse. It would also allow the city to build its contingency fund in the case of another economic recession, Mayor Warren Copeland said.

“We have to pass this levy to continue the good services our fire department and our police department gives us,” Springfield resident Bradley Minerd said.

While the tax increase is important, the city should also follow through with cutting expenses, including consolidating government, City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill said.

“This is not going to correct our problem,” O’Neill said. “It could be a beginning. We have to make the tough decisions … We need to leave nothing unturned.”

The entire community must also rally behind the tax levy, O’Neill said.

“It’s going to take that to have a chance to pass this,” he said.

Of the more than 36,000 registered voters in Springfield’s 37 precincts, about 21,800 voted on Nov. 8 — a turnout of about 60 percent. About 70 percent of registered voters in Clark County came to the polls on Election Day.

Some residents said they were upset out about how soon the city moved to place the issue back on the ballot.

“I feel that the people spoke when they defeated this levy,” said Clark County resident Jerry Lane, who works in the city and would have to pay the increase if approved. “It shouldn’t be put back up in front of them this quick. School boards and you guys are doing this unfairly. As citizens, if we stay no, it should stay at no.”

A local committee, the Citizens for Responsible Springfield City Government, formed to oppose the tax increase last year, erecting yard signs throughout the city. The committee plans to oppose the tax increase again in May, Treasurer Dan Harkins said.

The city should consolidate services with the county, such as 9-1-1 dispatch and its building departments, to save money, rather than seeking a tax increase, he said. It’s hard to convince a two-person household with a $31,000 annual income to vote yes on an issue that could lead to pay raises for city workers making twice their salary, Harkins said.

“We have a poverty problem,” Harkins said. “The only way we’re going to correct the poverty problem is by growing the economy and growing the population. A tax increase would just make us very uncompetitive in the region. We would see further erosion of our economic base.”

Last month a divided commission passed its budget for this year, which included $800,000 in cuts to the municipal court, parks, and police and firefighters overtime.

The city projects generating $38.4 million in general fund revenues next year. However, the city estimates spending about $39 million, leaving about a $600,000 deficit next year.

During the election, city leaders said up to 10 civilian workers at the police division could be laid off and replaced by removing officers from the streets if the levy failed. It also said it would lay off up to 25 non-union employees, many of whom work at City Hall, without more tax revenue.

The city may begin cutting staff members in March, leaders said last month.

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