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R.I. County seeks tax as springboard

ROCK ISLAND -- When Rock Island County voters go to the polls March 17, they will be asked to invest tax dollars into a plan to catch up with neighboring Scott County's economic development boom.

Illinois Quad-Cities economic leaders were called to arms in November 1995, when a Bi-State Regional Commission report showed Scott County's biggest cities had grown 10 times faster than Rock Island County's since 1990, and its retail sales had grown 36 times faster.

``This shows a picture of us lagging behind the other side of the river,'' then-county executive Paul Mulcahey told the Rock Island County Board. He warned members the county must become more aggressive in helping businesses expand.

In the wake of the report, a series of Illinois Quad City Chamber-sponsored economic summit meetings concluded that Rock Island County seriously lagged behind similar counties in Illinois and Iowa in terms of household and population growth, housing prices and retail sales.

Public and private community leaders proposed a countywide, quarter-cent sales tax, with the revenue used to encourage construction of affordable housing and creation and retention of jobs.

The county now offers little or nothing in the way of business incentives, board member and businessman Ted Davies noted.

``As business owners consider putting up new buildings, they check to see what's available in low-interest loans,'' he said. ``We've got a revolving loan account, but there's nothing in it.''

A proposed inter-local agreement would create a nine-member Joint Opportunities Board of public and private-sector residents who would decide how to invest the estimated $3 million the sales tax would generate.

Under the agreement, 60 percent of the funds would be earmarked for job retention and growth, 30 percent used to build infrastructure for new housing for young families, and the remaining 10 percent split equally between a quick-response fund and administrative and marketing costs.

Chambers of commerce historically fight most tax increases, especially sales tax efforts, chamber president Dennis Pauley noted. The Rock Island County Republican Party has vowed to fight the sales tax.

``We run the risk of alienating members,'' Mr. Pauley said. ``But our board has concluded that it is far riskier to do nothing to reverse the declines in our market.''

The combined population of Davenport and Bettendorf grew by 4,132 from 1990 to 1994, while the combined growth in Rock Island, Moline and East Moline was just 448, Bi-State estimated. Scott County's total growth outstripped its Illinois neighbor's 3.3 percent to 1.1 percent.

In 1970, Rock Island County led Scott County in total retail sales, $925 million to $819 million. By 1994, Scott had not only caught up to Rock Island County but passed it, with $1.1 billion in sales to $935 million, according to chamber of commerce numbers.

In those four years, Scott County retail sales grew 36 percent to Rock Island's 1 percent. Comparable-sized Sangamon County saw 27 percent and Winnebago County 16 percent growth over those years.

All figures are adjusted for inflation and expressed in 1987 dollars.

Mr. Mulcahey asked Bi-State to assemble the numbers in August 1995 after expressing concern the county was falling behind in economic development.

If Rock Island County enjoyed the same economic health as Scott County:

-- Citizens on the Illinois side would own residential property worth $295,144,000 more than today's valuations.

-- Rock Island County would have 1,022 more jobs for the unemployed, bringing in $22,824,000 more in wages.

-- Retail sales would be $409 million higher. This would provide $7 million more for tax reduction, road improvements and general welfare.

-- The schools would have a stronger financial base, giving students a better chance in life and attracting more residents.

-- By John Kanthak (February 2, 1998)

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