City of Urbana leaders are going to ask voters once again to approve the first increase in the city’s income tax in 27 years, as council has unanimously approved putting the measure on the May 7 ballot in order to improve police and fire service.
Voters have rejected previous attempts at passing the levy in the past two years.
The city’s income tax has been 1.4 percent since 1991, when voters passed an additional .4 percent. That raised the income tax from 1.0 percent to the current 1.4 percent, but if approved on the May 7 ballot, the proposal would add an additional 0.6-percent, said Bill Bean, Urbana’s mayor. That would mean the city’s total income tax would become 2 percent and the initiative would go into effect on July 1.
City officials say the proposed increase will generate about $1.3 million in funds that will be used for the police, fire, EMS and other city departments including personnel. The current rate on earned income includes wages, salaries and commissions earned in the city.
Bean explained at a recent council meeting that the city has lost more than $2.5 million in revenue since the state slashed the amount of Local Government Fund Revenue provided to municipalities around 2010. He said fire and police departments account for approximately 53 percent of the general fund and the needs of both departments have grown.
“The very first time we went for the levy we had no clue what we were doing - didn’t know how to market it,” Bean explained. “We’ve got three months to get going on it and we have a strategy and will work to get it passed. This is about the sustainability of our fire and police departments.”
Police Chief Matt Lingrell said in 1991 there were 24 officers in the department and that has now dropped to 19 due to the economic crisis 10 years ago. The department also was not able to continue to fund its elderly unit or retain the position of juvenile officer.
“Homeless issues, broken family issues, and drug issues are not going away,” Lingrell told council.
He added that he would love for officers to be able to wear body cameras, but there aren’t enough funds to pay someone to handle the technical side of the cameras.
Fire Chief Dean Ortleib said covering runs in the city has become an issue, because even though the population hasn’t grown, the number of runs the department has been called out on has nearly doubled.
Ortleib said that in the past three years, there has been a 16 percent increase in runs and more funding would help address staffing issues.
Urbana pastor Brian Wonn of the Champaign County Ministerial Association, said the proposed increase in the income tax would have a disproportionate effect on low-income wage earners struggling to cover household expenses.
“We are supportive of our community and the work our administration is doing as well as fire and police,” he said. “It is our understanding that the projected 2019 city budget shows a surplus of revenue over expenses which shows their is time to consider other alternatives.”
City officials say the proposed levy if passed, would free up more revenue in the general fund, most of which would be used for projects like paving more streets and provide more stable revenue for the city’s fire and police departments.