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$7M tax hike to fund new police watchdog?

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A citizens group faces a deadline next week to gather nearly 2,000 petition signatures to place a referendum on the April election ballot in Evanston that would increase sales and other taxes to raise over $7 million a year to fund a new independent police review board.

The city already has two panels composed of residents that review the results of internal investigations of complaints against the police, but the new panel appears to be intended to have its own investigatory powers.

Betty Ester, speaking at a City Council meeting.

Betty Ester, an organizer of the petition drive, did not respond over the weekend to emailed questions about the status of the petition drive or the cost of the proposed panel’s operation.

The total budget for the Police Department now is about $37 million, and the department, with a total of 226 full-time-equivalent employees, has a two-member Office of Professional Standards, budgeted at $518,000, to investigate complaints against officers.

The city’s Law Department, with 7.5 employees, has a budget of $1.1 million.

The referendum proposal, being circulated by the Citizens Network of Protection, reads:

Shall the City of Evanston establish a democratically elected independent civilian police review board of fifteen members, which shall be independently funded by one percent increase in sales tax, liquor tax, hotel tax, entertainment tax and rental car tax, which shall serve to increase: transparency, complaint investigation and follow-up, the protection of civil and human rights, and trust between the community and the Evanston Police Department?

The city’s current 1 percent home rule sales tax raises about $6.6 million a year, while the 6 percent liquor tax raises $3.1 million and the other taxes mentioned in the referendum generate smaller amounts.

A possible alternative reading of the referendum text — that it is calling for an increase of the sales tax from 1.0 percent to 1.01 percent — could not be implemented under state law, which requires the home rule tax to be adjusted by minimum increments of 0.25 percent.

Few details are available about how the proposed independent police review board for Evanston might operate, but it likely would be modeled to some extent on Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority, which was recently described in a Chicago Tribune editorial as being “beyond repair” for its failure to rein in a culture of police brutality.

The total sales tax rate in Evanston, including state, county and city levies, is now 10 percent. Combined rates in nearby communities generally range from 9.75 to 10.25 percent.

The deadline for filing petition signatures to get the referendum on the ballot is Jan. 3.


Update 9:45 a.m. 12/28/16: In an email message late Tuesday afternoon Ester said CNP is seeking “1 percent of the total sales made in Evanston” to fund the new watchdog group.

She said the group is still fleshing out a proposed budget, but envisions that the board would likely have “more than three” full-time staff members.

Ester says more than 30 people are circulating the petitions, but that she won’t have a clear idea of how well the petition drive is going until the group holds a meeting on Saturday.

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