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Waukegan City Council set to decide tax rate level

Updated: February 18, 2013 1:17AM

The immediate future of property taxes is heading toward the brink as the Waukegan City Council has scheduled a special session at 6 p.m. today, Dec. 20, to approve a revenue package.

The city must file a tax levy with the Lake County Clerk by Friday, but aldermen voted 5-3 to reject a 10 percent increase that would have raised taxes $118 annually on a $150,000 residence, and another 5-3 vote Monday night rejected an 8 percent option, proposed by 8th Ward Ald. William Valko.

In both cases, Finance Director Tina Smigielski told aldermen the levies would not cover city expenses. The 10 percent option, she reported, would come with a budget deficit of $1.5 million to $2 million, and she added that Valko’s 8 percent proposal would require “additional revenues or more cuts” to avoid a deficit.

Aldermen didn’t stage a vote on a 14 percent option provided by the finance department, and a 21 percent proposal that would have raised taxes $240 on a $150,000 residence was taken off the agenda after drawing criticism earlier in the levy process.

During debate that lasted nearly an hour, aldermen expressed a wide range of opinions on whether or not the city should raise property taxes after a three-year period that saw employee ranks trimmed by some 40 percent.

Seventh Ward Ald. Lisa May, pointing to additional police officers and firefighters hired in part through federal grants that must be matched locally, said she feels that “public safety is not negotiable. ... I cannot in good conscience support any increase over the 10 percent, nor can I support anything lesser, as we will continually struggle to improve and grow in a community with such limited resources.”

May ended up voting for the 10 percent option with aldermen Gregory Moisio (3rd Ward) and Edith Newsome (5th), while aldermen Sam Cunningham (1st), Thomas Koncan Jr. (2nd), Harold Beadling (4th), Rafael Rivera (9th) and Valko voted against it. The vote on 8 percent found Valko, Cunningham and Moisio voting in favor, with Beadling, Koncan, May, Newsome and Rivera opposed. Sixth Ward Ald. Larry TenPas was not in attendance Monday, nor was Mayor Robert Sabonjian.

Newsome pushed for the council to reconsider and get something passed before departing, saying “we’re here to make tough decisions (and) do what we’ve got to do as legislators.”

“We have to give the city, the staff, something to work with. We can’t afford to lay off any more people in this city. We’re working at minimal cost. Even at 10 percent, we’re operating at a loss,” said Newsome, adding that a tax increase “is not only going to affect the people in this community — my taxes are going to go up. I’ve got to find some way to pay them if I’m going to stay in my house. ... Nobody wants their taxes to go up, but we’ve got to bite the bullet. It’s got to go up.”

Koncan, while saying that May and Newsome “bring up some very good points,” added, “I think that 10 percent is a high burden on the people that are not working and a high burden on people that are struggling today, so I’ll be thinking long and hard” about other options.

One issue embedded in each levy option is placing the $5.7 million annual cost of trash collection onto the property tax rolls rather than have residents pay $15 per quarter on their water bills. Administrators proposed the move with an eye on more effective collection from vacant properties, but Valko asked Smigielski if she can present an option leaving garbage-fee collection as is.

While Smigielski agreed to do the math, she also reported that the current system only covers 15 to 18 percent of the actual collection costs.

“If the aldermen don’t want to consider earmarking a portion of the property tax bill toward garbage disposal, then the taxes might even not go up,” Smigielski added. “If we charged residents for the full cost of garbage pickup (on water bills), it would be anywhere between $400 and $600 per year.”

Moisio, who chaired the meeting in Sabonjian’s absence, underscored the fact that the council must approve some version of a levy, saying “it’s got to be done. If not, we’re shutting the doors.”

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