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Residents, stakeholders discuss proposed downtown Joliet tax expansion

The city of Joliet is considering a proposal that would allow officials to renew an expiring special tax on businesses located in the downtown area in addition to expanding the service area of the economic development program to include roadway corridors that serve as entryways.

The expansion of the special service area, which has been in place within downtown Joliet since 1980, is intended to allow city officials to levy a special tax upon an area to fund services benefitting the community. The measure would provide funding for economic development activities, marketing, public improvements and special events related to downtown Joliet.

The current SSA will expire in 2016.

Under the proposal, the expanded area would include business, commercial and industrial property beginning at but not including Collins Street Prison as the boundaries travel south on Collins Street toward Joliet Township High School, and extends from Train Bridge along Cass Street toward South Chicago Street to I-80.

A number of residents and stakeholders were on hand to discuss the matter last week during a tax expansion open house at City Hall.

“This is something that just starts to generate the discussion,” Deputy City Manager Steve Jones said. “We’ve had meetings with City Center Partnership board, with the Chamber executive board, we met with the Alianza folks. This is really the fourth meeting we’re having to get the word out in the community to get a sense of what the city is really proposing.”

To date, the current SSA tax for the downtown area is assessed at $0.95 cents for each $100 in property valuation. That rate allows the city to generate $400,000 per year in revenue.

Under the new proposal, there is no change to current property owners already paying the special tax. For property owners included in the expansion, the new rate will result in a property tax increase of 8.6 percent. Expansion will allow the new special service area to generate an added $230,000 for economic development purposes.

Amy Sanchez, of Joliet, was one of several people in attendance for the open house. She said the idea of expanding the special tax concerns her.

“My reservation to the pitch (is) ‘let’s increase 8.6 percent because we’re going to do some banners and beautification projects,’” she said. “I need to know what’s the immediate gratification I have for saying, ‘yes, increase my taxes 8.6 percent while you’re increasing my water bill that I have to service people, while you’re increasing a bunch of other stuff as well.”

Jones tried to explain how the SSA would work to the community’s benefit.

“It’s not just signs and pretty street banners and things like that,” he said. “It gets right into ‘how do we make some of the vacant properties or some of the downtrodden properties something that’s more marketable for someone to come in and start a business? How do we make it a little more attractive and safe for someone coming into the community where they don’t have to worry about going to that business?”

Jones emphasized that some of it’s meant to revamp perceptions of the downtown area, but another piece of it provides actual hard dollars that’s going into a specific business owner’s coffers to help boost that operation.

Cristina Cardenas, of Joliet, questioned the benefit of expanding the SSA, saying there are businesses in certain areas that are lacking the basics, like, assigned neighborhood policing and working water mains.

“I think it’s a hard sell now,” she said. “…We just lack the basics in some of areas that you’re proposing and that’s why we don’t think it’s fair, I guess I should say, that we should be paying for basic services that we should be already getting and that we’ve lacked for so long that it’s just frustrating.”

Jones said that’s why it’s crucial to get community input early on, like, they’re receiving now and said it’s all part of the process.

“These are the kind of ideas if there’s a perception that really is one of the elements the city should be looking at, then we need to be hear that,” he said. “We’re hearing it now, but I mean those are the ideas that that’s not on my list.”

One attendee asked to what length would the program cater to fair sharing of revenue dollars generated among the various business and property owners in the proposed SSA expansion.

Rod Tonelli, vice chair of Joliet City Center Partnership board, said competition for specific dollars to benefit one’s business hasn’t arisen as an issue to this point.

“Investing those dollars largely in the events, the branding and the marketing activities is where a majority of the money is spent helps everybody in the footprint of the area,” he said. “Where there’s been specific dollars is relative to façade and building incentives, people have asked for them. Those have been evaluated on a come and ask basis.”

Tonelli emphasized that frankly, there hasn’t been as much competition for the money over the years, due to the fact there hasn’t been much new business activity.

“One of things the current City Center Partnership does is we have a number of active committees—there’s a marketing committee, there’s an economic development committee, and there’s an owners and managers’ committee,” he said. “There’s various ways that all of the various property owners and businesses in downtown territory get to participate. At those committees, you’re essentially giving guidance to the board on where they’d like to see those dollars appropriated and spent.”

The city has proposed a number of potential uses for funds generated through the proposed tax expansion including Chicago Street streetscape improvements, maintenance and installation of public art within the SSA territory and the new artificial turf at Silver Cross Field.

One attendee questioned the extent to which business and property owners of the proposed SSA expansion can start to view themselves as equal parts contributing to the success of the downtown, seeing the various differences in need that exist.

Alfredo Melesio, director of the city’s neighborhood services division, said the city does consider the ideas and concerns posed by business and property owners in the proposed SSA, much like they will do for any constituent.

“This really is the business owners sort of community decision,” he said, noting that he wants it to be clear that the SSA is not being sought with only the city’s interests in mind. “Everybody is going to get notice and have an opportunity to participate… A lot of hardcore decisions have not been made.”

Melesio said this proposal for expansion is “essentially an extension of the downtown.”

If approved, the SSA will likely have a 10-year expiration.

The city council is expected to consider the SSA proposal at the Sept. 6 meeting.

If approved, a public hearing will be held in October, with a final approval to be considered in December.

Under state law, property owners and residents opposed to the proposed special tax will have 60 days following the public hearing to file an objection. If at least 51 percent of owners and electors file an objection, the SSA is not established.

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