Madison - St. Clair Record

Friday, September 20, 2019

‘Blue collar tax referendum’ shaping into partisan battle; Contest for Madison County governance driving debate

By Ann Maher | May 24, 2016

A proposal to cut Madison County property taxes has become a clearly partisan issue with both sides now gearing up for a challenge to the “blue collar tax referendum.”

Attorneys representing thousands of registered voters who want the referendum to appear on the November ballot argue that their opponents are lying when they say the measure would result in a reduction in funding for law enforcement.

In the meantime, opponents allege that organizers who gathered nearly 10,000 signatures favoring the referendum “allowed fraudulent activity in order to get as many signatures as possible.” They say that close to 30 percent of signatures are invalid, and that, therefore, the referendum cannot go forth to voters in the upcoming election.

A Madison County electoral board, which will rule on objections to approximately 2,500 signatures gathered by proponents, is comprised of Madison County Clerk Debbie Ming-Mendoza, former Associate Judge James Hackett and former assistant state’s attorney Stephanie Robbins.

Ming-Mendoza said on Tuesday that hearings have not yet been set in the matter.

The controversy stems from an effort led in part by county Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, a Republican, who along with his allies, recently collected approximately 2,000 signatures more than necessary to get this question on the ballot:

"Shall the maximum tax rate for general county purposes of Madison County, Illinois, be established at 0.20 percent of the equalized assessed value of the taxable property therein instead of 0.25 percent, the maximum rate otherwise applicable to the next taxes to be extended?"

Prenzler and others say that for years, the county has over-taxed property owners between $3 and $4 million per year, and as a result the county has a $144 million surplus. They say that there will not be a decrease in funding for law enforcement, as suggested by county Democratic office holders, including Board chairman Alan Dunstan, State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons and Sheriff John Lakin.

Lakin has said his department would lose $600,000 in funding; Gibbons has said his office would lose $200,000.

Prenzler is challenging long-time county government head Dunstan in the November election.

Attorneys Don Weber and James Craney represent 9,982 registered voters who signed their names to the pro- blue collar tax referendum petitions.

In a motion to seek discovery in the case going before the electoral board, Weber and Craney say they want to determine what the objectors’ motives and bias are.

“It is a lie for Objectors to state that the blue collar tax cut referendum in question will reduce funding for law enforcement,” they wrote.

“This surplus was created by Chairman Alan Dunstan’s over-taxing the citizens of Madison County…There will be no decrease in the funding of law enforcement and Objector’s statements to the contrary are simply false. One more example of lies and untruths made by Objectors.”

Madison County Democratic Central Committee chairman Mark Von Nida, who also serves as the county’s elected Circuit Clerk, led the effort to challenge the signatures collected.

“Kurt Prenzler and his Tea Party friends have filed petitions for a tax referendum,” Von Nida wrote on county Democrat letterhead.

“While Democrats have been working toward providing real property tax relief, this has been a completely dishonest effort that Prenzler has been using for his political campaign.

“We hope to prove at an Election Board Hearing that corners were cut and that organizers allowed fraudulent activity in order to get as many signatures as possible.”

One of the opponents whose objections form the basis of the complaint before the electoral board, Bennett Dickmann, is a former police officer, police chief and city administrator, who stated that a full review of the signatures had been conducted.

Dickmann and fellow objector Richard Gillespie are represented by Granite City attorney William Schooley.

“It appears that supporters of this petition submitted nearly 3,000 invalid signatures,” Dickmann wrote in a Facebook posting.

“Maybe it is my suspicious nature, but I cannot avoid believing that one or more persons were party to an effort to violate election law. By essentially ‘stuffing the ballot box’ and submitting thousands of invalid signatures, the supporters of this petition drive have seemingly attempted to fraudulently mislead the public into thinking that their anti-law enforcement efforts had the support of the public and should be submitted to a vote. Clearly, this level of support as claimed is not the case and I feel we can now prove it.”

Weber said he was confident that the objectors will not prevail.

He said that all but 10 of the 9,992 signatures were witnessed by a petition circulator, and that there are 127 circulators who have signed affidavits attesting to the validity of the signatures.

He also said that approximately 160 signatures are being challenged on the basis of being duplicates.

If need be, he said that supporters would go back to persons whose signatures are being challenged to have them re-affirm their position.

Of the 2,500 signatures in dispute, Weber said that objectors would have to sustain 75 percent of those challenges in order to defeat the referendum going before voters.

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