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Some school districts looking to sales tax

Updated: January 21, 2013 10:19PM

Never let it be said that local governments aren’t inventive when it comes to ways to extract tax money from residents.

The best at this are municipalities, which have many ways to raise revenue — utility taxes, building fees, revenue from traffic tickets, their share of state sales tax, hotel and motel sales tax, restaurant sales tax, and the myriad other sources of revenue they have in addition to property taxes.

Other local governments have fewer options when it comes to extracting money from the citizenry.

A Park District commissioner I knew many years ago used to complain that a city had so many ways of getting revenue — while the Park District was pretty much limited to property tax and the fees it could charge for its programs.

The same is true for school districts, which have property taxes, some money from the state, and whatever fees they charge for books and participation in athletics, band and so forth.

So when you are looking at your property tax bill, and grousing that the local school district accounts for two-thirds of it or more, just consider all the teachers and other staff it employs, and all the schools and other buildings it needs to construct and maintain and you’ll understand why it takes such a large chunk of your property taxes.

Then factor in the state’s fiscal woes, and note how when the state is slow in paying its bills, school districts are adversely affected.

Given the limited sources of funding that school districts have, and the current problem the state has paying what it owes, we probably shouldn’t be surprised if districts look around for other ways to raise revenue.

Still, I was somewhat taken aback to read that the financial advisory committee of the Oswego School District is discussing the possibility of seeking a Kendall County-wide sales tax by referendum. And the Sandwich School District is looking to do the same thing, asking that a sales tax be instituted in LaSalle County.

In both cases, money collected by the sales tax would be apportioned among districts in the county based on the number of students.

Oswego and Sandwich are looking at a sales tax of 1 percent (or maybe 2 percent in Oswego’s case) that would be used specifically to help reduce debt in the form of paying off existing bonds and for future building construction. The money can’t be used for operating expenses, just building-related expenses or to reduce property tax. Other downstate school districts have gone this route as well.

This would have to go to referendum and have the proposal approved by voters, which seems to me a long shot at best.

I don’t know how I feel about this tactic. The advantage is that it would take some of the tax burden off the regressive property tax and it would spread the obligation of supporting the school system beyond property owners. The property tax is one of the biggest burdens on retirees who own their homes, so being able to hold that steady or reduce it would be beneficial to them.

At least with a sales tax one has a choice of buying something or not buying it. The tax would also have a number of exemptions, including food, medications, licensed motor vehicles and farm equipment.

On the other hand, giving any taxing body another way to raise revenue is letting the camel’s nose into the tent. Today’s 1 percent tax has a tendency to become next year’s 2 percent tax and a 3 percent tax soon after that.

I guess those of us who live in other school districts can just look at Oswego and Sandwich and say “Hey guys, keep this bright idea to yourselves.”

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