Transform Rockford

Key takeaways from the sales tax forum

It was cold. It was rainy. It was about taxes.

That sums up what was a disappointing attendance for Thursday’s sales tax forum at the Nordlof Center hosted by Transform Rockford. There were about 22-30 people there and 776 people tried to view it on Facebook live at one point or another. More on that later.

The content of the discussion was excellent, with Ralph Martire, executive director for the Center of Tax and Budget Accountability serving as moderator.

Panelists were Andy Benson of Benson Stone; Greg Brown, chief financial officer for Rockford Public Schools; Chris Dornbush, operations director for WInnebago County;  Carrie Haggerty, finance director of the city of Rockford; and Jason Holcomb, director of community impact for the Region 1 Planning Council.

Rockford’s 1 percent sales tax for roads was given high marks for transparency and accountability. “Sales taxes 101,” Martire said. You can go to the city’s website and see how much money is collected, how much is spent and what the five-year plan is. What makes this tax the “gold standard” for add-on taxes is that it comes with a five-year sunset clause. If voters don’t like how the money is spent or if they are unclear about where it’s going, they can vote to deny an extension of the tax.

The 0.5 percent mental health sales tax also received high marks. Holcomb brought copies of the annual report for anyone who wished to go through it. That tax has a six-year sunset clause, so again, voters can hold the mental health board accountable by voting against extending the tax.

No one can dispute the need for public safety in Winnebago County, but plenty of questions remain about how the public safety tax is being spent. First and foremost, it was meant to pay to build a new jail. However, included in the sales pitch to the public was a promise to spend money on programs to keep people out of jail.

Many groups, the Rockford Register Star Editorial Board being just one, would not support money just for a jail. It was the alternative programs that earned our support. Dornbush explained the situation the best he could, but it’s difficult for the average person to wade through the county’s financial reports and see how much is being spent on the jail, on officers and on stay-out-of-jail programs.

Perhaps the money is being spent efficiently and is yielding the best outcomes, but it would be in the public’s best interest if that information was easy to find and analyze. 

The public safety tax, unlike the other two mentioned, is with us forever. There is no sunset. Public safety is an important issue that the Transform Rockford team plans to be engaged in.

We had some technical issues during the forum. It was difficult for the audience to hear some questions and the responses. That’s an issue that will be cleared up before Transform Rockford hosts another event. 

The live audio was bad, but the Facebook audio was practically impossible to understand. I’ve learned a few things about Facebook live – I’ve never done one before – and will work so Facebook users have a better viewing experience next time.

There will be a next time. Transform Rockford historically has done well bringing people together to talk about sensitive topics. There’s a lot to talk about so keep an eye on our Facebook page and our website for the next opportunity for conversation.

Thank you to Ralph Martire, the panelists and the audience that came out on a dreary April day.

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