News Local/State

County Board Places Sales Tax Question On Ballot

The Champaign County Board member Diane Michaels discusses the 1/4-cent sales tax ballot item in Thursday's meeting.

The Champaign County Board member Diane Michaels (R) discusses the 1/4-cent sales tax ballot item in Thursday's meeting. Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

It took considerable discussion, and two votes, but the Champaign County Board has agreed to place a quarter-cent sales tax question on November ballots to upgrade facilities. The vote came Thursday after the board heard a number of comments from those with the 'Build Programs, Not Jails' movement.

They included Kristina Khan, who turned to face the audience of 25 people, away from the county board, a public body she calls ‘deceptive.’  She calls the jail plan ‘financially ridiculous’ and a 'threat to public safety'.

“We know that proven alternatives exist, and that it’s a matter of will to begin implementing them," Kahn said. "We know that we have to look at the entire picture of criminal justice in order to address it.  We know that we can’t build out way out of social problems.”

Kahn also contends the jail portion of the facilities plan is a threat to maintenance to the Champaign County Nursing Home, an area she supports.

Backers of the tax argue that closing the downtown Urbana jail and expanding the satellite facility will ultimately mean fewer cells.  The $10-to-13-million project means adding a separate area at that site for those with mental health and medical needs.

Rohn Koester contends the long-term facilities plan only included jails in recent weeks.

“It seems to me that there is an exceptionalism at work in this case," he said. "Because I’m guessing that if we were all to sit down together, we would find common ground on 90-percent of what we had to talk about in terms of what we wanted for the county.  Putting people first, trying to address real problems.”

County Board member and Democrat Pius Weibel dismisses claims the facilities plan was quickly thrown together - saying it took at least three years.

“Other people said that we should let the public have more seats at the table," he said. "Well, that’s what we’re here for.  We’re elected by the people. This is a democracy – it’s the democratic way.  We were elected to make decisions like this.”

Opponent Danielle Chynoweth questions how that wing of the satellite site be staffed, if medical personnel would be on duty around the clock.

"Building a facility will not enhance care," she said.  "And it is not the same thing as having a care facility outside the jail. It is significantly different." 

Chynoweth called it 'fraud' that the jail expansion was tied in the same proposal with $2-million in deferred maintance at the Champaign County Nursing Home.

Those with the 'Build Programs, Not Jails' campaign posted signs to the windows of the Brookens Administrative Center

Photo Credit: Jeff Bossert/Illinois Public Media

But Democratic county board member James Quisenberry says the time to start addressing the facilities is now.  For those unhappy with the plan, he notes future county boards will address the facilities plan over a 12-year period.

"You have a lot of time and a lot of new faces that you can work with that can affect where those dollars would go if (the tax proposal) passes," he said.  "Or you also choose to work against it, and we could spent another several years spending $500-to-800-thousand dollars on running two jails with money that could be going to other programs."

The only ‘no’ votes came from Republican Jon Rector and Democrat Matt Hiser.  Another vocal opponent of the sales tax, Democrat Josh Hartke, was absent from Thursday’s meeting.

County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie, a Democrat, says a social media campaign will start soon to educate the county on the need for the sales tax plan, showing the condition of the downtown jail, and the need for work at the county nursing home.