News Local/State

Opponents Of Champaign Co. Sales Tax Referendum Question Commitment To Projects


An expansion of the Champaign County satellite jail is the biggest project that would be funded by a proposed quarter-cent sales tax for county facilities. But the jail project has its share of opponents. They include a county board member who voted against the ballot item, saying county leaders have failed to engage the community on the issue.

Democrat Josh Hartke was one of just three ‘no’ votes Tuesday night, as the county board voted 15-3 in committee to place the quarter-cent facilities sales tax on the November 8th ballot. A final vote will happen August 18th.

The tax would pay for several county projects, but the biggest one would be the expansion of the county’s satellite jail in east Urbana, while the downtown jail is closed.

Hartke compares the county proposal to the school bond referendum that was twice rejected by voters in the Champaign School District. 

He says those failed because voters had little input into the crafting of the proposal. And he thinks the county sales tax proposal will be rejected as well --- especially by those who oppose new jail construction.

"We need to bring them to the table from the beginning, so they feel confident that we’re doing the right thing," he said.  "That’s how you create trust so that people are willing to trust you with their money.  I don’t think that the current county board leadership or many of those who voted yes have really done anything to do that.”

In contrast, Hartke says Champaign school officials have done a better job of engaging voters for a third bond referendum for November, by listening to an advisory committee made up of community members.

But Hartke says if approved, the facility sales tax would become a ‘blank check’, with no binding language to commit funds to its initial plans. 

Rohn Koester, a member of the ‘Build Programs, Not Jails’ campaign, contends the county needs to house those inmates in a separate facility altogether.  He says he’s concerned about what the county’s plans would look like.

“There’s a real lack of specificity about the staffing, and what kind of services would be provided," Koester said.  "At this point, saying that 30 cells are going to be dedicated to medical and mental health concerns seems maybe too vague to lean on as a mental health program in the jail.”

Koester says it seems more likely the additional space will simply be used for overflow jail cells for the general population.

The quarter cent tax proposal would generate about $50-million over 12 years before it expires. But Koester says there’s no binding language in the proposal to commit those funds to the county board’s initial plans.  He says a future county board would make some decisions, given the life of the proposal.

The county board endorsed the proposal this week in committee. A final vote to put the referendum on the November 8th ballot is scheduled for next Thursday, August 18.