Candidates for Woodstock mayor and City Council disagree on whether the city should raise its sales tax rate.

The proposal to add a home-rule sales tax in Woodstock was a key issue at a candidate forum March 23 at the Woodstock Public Library.

Three people are running for mayor in the April 4 election: incumbent Mayor Brian Sager, local business owner Gregg Hanson and County Board member Michael Rein.

Another six are vying for three seats on the City Council. Incumbents Michael Turner and Joseph Starzynski are being challenged by Scott Gessert, Gordon Tebo, Jim Prindiville and Michael Stanard.

The city’s proposed budget includes a sales tax increase of one percentage point on general merchandise, something city officials have said could be used to replace a loss of other revenue after the council opted earlier this month to reduce the city’s property tax levy.

The additional sales tax, which would bump the rate in Woodstock to 8 percent on most purchases, won’t be voted on until after the election.

Gessert and Hanson said they are against the increase.

“When I came to Woodstock nearly 18 years ago, I brought with me business from outside of town. … This 1 percent sales tax would significantly affect our business, my business, in being competitive in this town,” Gessert said. “Because it would make not only myself, but other businesses in the city, less competitive, that would be a reason I would not support a sales tax increase.”

Prindiville, Stanard and Rein said they don’t like the proposal but added the issue should be voted on by residents.

“I am against a 1 percent sales tax. I’m against any tax that the city wants to impose on the people,” Rein said. “If anything, [hold] a referendum, which is free to put on a ballot. You can put it to the people, empower the people and let them decide if any tax, whatever it is, will be in line with what the citizens and taxpayers want in the city.”

Tebo and Starzynski said they might favor a sales tax increase, but not necessarily for the full amount proposed.

“I understand that if you go from 7 percent to 8 percent, it doesn’t seem like a big jump, but it’s a pretty big jump,” Tebo said. “… I would support maybe a half- or a three-quarter-percent increase in the sales tax and use it mainly for roads.”

“I would support some form of sales tax. I’m not sure exactly how much,” Starzynski said. “When I look around at the communities around us, I don’t think it puts a major dent. When I look at Crystal Lake, they’re at 7.75 [percent], McHenry’s at 7.5, Algonquin’s at 7.75, Lake in the Hills is at 8 percent.… We haven’t finished discussing it. It’s not a done deal.”

Sager and Turner said a higher sales tax rate could be a way to pay for city services without having to rely so much on property taxes.

“I’m against taxes. I’m a good conservative. … [But] I deal in the reality of a lousy state budget, an economy that’s been struggling, and trying to find a way to maintain the services to residents that we all value, and trying to come up with a plan that can lower property taxes and can improve roads and help jump-start [the] manufacturing economy,” Turner said. “… This is not a perfect plan, but it is a reality that we face and I would probably end up voting yes, although I’m open to the discussion and input from folks.”

Economic development and jobs also proved to be major talking points. Prindiville said investors need to see value in bringing their businesses to Woodstock.

“We need to sell [business owners] on what’s good,” Prindiville said. “Show them how much they’re getting for those real estate taxes, and on the city’s part, that includes good roads, good services, a high quality of life for their employees and people involved with their business. We have to sell that to potential investors.”

Hanson said he wants to see more investment in local businesses. He warned against depending too heavily on big-box stores for jobs and tax revenue, labeling them “in retrenchment.”

“When they talk about manufacturing, I’m all for manufacturing, I’m also for high-tech jobs, but that’s a thing of the past. We need to be looking to the future,” Hanson said. “Probably the best place to invest is in local people. I’m pretty much about innovation, incubation and retention of businesses.”

Stanard said he doesn’t think the city is doing enough to attract new enterprises.

“I would focus entirely on new business and I would get aggressive about it,” Stanard said. “The venus flytrap approach that the city’s economic development people have been doing doesn’t work and will not work.”

But Sager said he “could not disagree more” with Stanard’s statement, citing initiatives such as the installation of a fiber optic network and the city’s involvement in an enterprise zone.

“Since December and the fall of 2015, we have added 36 new businesses which have invested in the city of Woodstock, we have worked with and had 23 businesses expand their investments and their presence in our community,” Sager said. “… Are there challenges? Yes, but I think that we have many opportunities in economic development.”

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