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City council eyes 15% property tax hike to fund pensions

By M.A. Smith
Contributing writer
updated: 12/6/2020 2:57 PM

The Du Quoin City Council met Monday to face a hard economic decision.

"If we don't raise property taxes," Mayor Guy Alongi asked, "are we willing to lay off employees?"

It was clear no one on the council wanted to raise taxes, but neither did they believe they could cut personnel and maintain adequate city services.

In the end they reached a consensus -- increase the city's property taxes by 15% to raise enough money to pay next year's expected $90,000 increase in the city's pension obligation for police and firefighters.

Meanwhile, Alongi put a further squeeze Monday on his city commissioners, asking them for an additional 2.5% cut in their departmental budgets on top of the 5% they already had cut. A wage freeze for nonunion city employees was enacted earlier this month; and negotiations are ongoing with union employees as the city asks them for a wage freeze as well, Alongi said.

Because the requested property tax hike is more than 4.9%, a public hearing is required. It will be held at 3 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 4 at City Hall. Accommodations will be made for social distancing: the hearing will be televised on cable TV and residents will be able to call into the meeting from home instead of coming down in person. Attendees will be safely distanced from each other and have three minutes to speak.

Alongi said the 15% property tax hike is expected to garner an additional $90,000 to $100,000 annually, and he vowed every cent will go into the pension fund. He said the owner of a $100,000 house in Du Quoin will get tagged for roughly $50 more on next year's property tax bills. More expensive houses will generate more additional taxes; while less expensive houses will generate less.

The 15% is attached only to the city portion of a resident's tax bill, not the entire bill.

Alongi said the city has been hit with a double blow: So far a $240,000 drop in sales taxes in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it has had on local business; and an unexpected $90,000 shortfall in the pension obligations that will be due in 2021. As well, the sales tax shortfall is expected to grow between now and the end of 2020.

Alongi has also said that without the consistent sales taxes from Walmart and the Prysmian Group (formerly General Cable) to prop up the city's finances, Du Quoin would be in much worse shape.

"All we're doing is passing along to the citizens of Du Quoin what the state is calculating," in terms of additional pension obligations, Alongi said Wednesday. "This is not self-inflicted."

"I expect some people won't like it," he added. "I don't like it. But in this case you have to weigh funding your public safety or you have layoffs to pay for pensions."

He said taxpayers need to understand the city is cutting its 2021 budget by 7.5% which will amount to something more than $500,000, plus the wage freeze on nonunion employees.

If the union employees also agree to a salary freeze, that would save the city another $100,000," Alongi said.

Meanwhile, an open full-time firefighter position and an open police officer position will remain unfilled. The city has contracted with two part-timers for police and police dispatch, but those people are part of a pool of workers who are called only to fill holes, Alongi said.

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