Fox Lake voters consider tax hike, fire protection changes
Fox Lake voters will decide two measures on the March 15 ballot that aim to boost the village's sales tax and change how fire protection is organized.
One question asks permission to increase the local sales tax rate to 8 percent on many goods to generate money to hire personnel and pay for road repairs. The other question asks if the village should join the Fox Lake Fire Protection District instead of using the municipal fire department.
While there's no formal opposition to either question, there are many opponents who say the village needs to learn to live within its means and not seek more funding from residents.
Village officials say the proposed 8 percent sales tax is typical for northwestern Lake County. The Illinois Department of Revenue shows a sales tax of 7 percent in Wauconda, Round Lake, Antioch, Lakemoor and Lake Villa. Volo has a sales tax of 8 percent, while Round Lake Beach has a sales tax of 7.5 percent.
If approved, it would generate about $1 million annually that would be used to hire police officers and other staff, and pay for street repairs and other infrastructure projects, Mayor Donny Schmit said.
Visitors and tourists who purchase gasoline or merchandise while traveling through the area would share the burden, Schmit said. It wouldn't apply to purchases at local bars or restaurants, where a 1.5 percent "places-of-eating" sales tax was approved in April 2015. It also would not apply to prescription drugs or items with an ownership title, such as cars and boats.
"It would be on convenience stores and dollar stores, things like that," Schmit said.
Staffing is down in the streets and police departments, and the village needs three full-time police officers and two part-time clerks, the mayor said. The money also would help fix 66 miles of roads, and fund the facade improvement program, Pace bus service and potential land acquisition.
"Four people have left to take jobs in other villages because they pay more," he said. "(The village board) could raise the tax levy to cover some of this, but we wanted to give residents a chance to decide the direction they want to go."
The fire question is designed to get the village "out of the fire safety business altogether," Schmit said.
Currently, homeowners pay an ambulance tax and corporate fire tax for the municipal fire department, which responds to fire and rescue calls within the village. However, the fire department doesn't have employees, so the village uses those tax dollars to contract with the Fox Lake Fire Protection District to staff municipal fire stations, Schmit said.
If the fire question is approved, the ambulance and corporate fire tax money instead would go directly to the fire district.
However, those taxes are less than what residents outside of the village pay for fire district service. That means a property tax increase would be needed to make up the difference for village residents. The tax to the owner of a $200,000 house in Fox Lake would be an additional $138 annually, officials said.
In addition to the ambulance and corporate fire taxes, the village pays $210,000 annually from its general fund to cover the cost of the most recent fire district contract, Schmit said.
If the ballot question is approved, the village would keep that money in the general fund and use it to pay personnel and road improvement costs, Schmit said. If it is defeated, the amount of general fund money paid to the fire district will "most likely double" during the next contract negotiation, he said.
"It's not right that village residents pay less for fire and rescue than what the fire district collects from residents outside of the village," Schmit said. "Especially since the village receives 55 percent of the calls."
Schmit said the main benefit of the fire service change would be eliminating the need to negotiate fire protection contracts.
"It takes politics out of fire protection," he said. "Instead of the village negotiating with the fire protection district on a fire contract, the fire district would collect tax money by themselves."
At issue for opponents is a property tax hike coming on the heels of other recent funding initiatives, such as the "places-of-eating" sales tax and the 2014 water rate increase.
Former village trustee Noel Working, who is a business owner, is among those who say the ballot initiatives are a bad deal for residents.
"The village would take that extra money they currently give to the fire department and put it in the general fund and use it for their pleasure," Working said. "Then, the fire district raises our taxes to pay for fire services. It's like a whole new tax." Working also opposes the sales tax increase. He argues that 50 percent to 80 percent of the people who would be affected are local residents.
"It's putting the sales tax increase on people who use businesses like Walgreens and Jewel," he said. "When will the government stop taking money away from us to pay our bills? The village needs to learn to live within their means, just like we do."