Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Hardin County Weighs Options Over Hogrock

Hardin County should follow Sen. Gary Forby's advice.

That's not something I write often, but he's correct that Hardin County should consider Home Rule when it comes to covering the costs associated with the events at Hogrock and the Gathering of the Juggalos.

The Southern Illinoisan has another story today of county officials highlighting the costs to the sheriff department, ambulance services and unpaid hospital bills.

Previously, Sheriff Lloyd Cullison told the Southern back in August the event cost at least $10,000 in overtime for his department.

County officials want a law passed that would allow them to charge the promoters of such events. The trouble is that while the General Assembly could approve such a law, it's unlikely it would be available to them by next year. With the turmoil that makes up the General Assembly's relationship with Gov. Quinn, it's not quite clear a bill could even pass and get signed.

While area lawmakers have been able to get some local legislation passed in recent years, they've run into road blocks when it concerns taxation or other similar issues.

Meanwhile, there's another option. Home Rule counties and communities could pass such an ordinance, but first, voters would have to approve Home Rule for Hardin County. It's something that officials should put on the ballot for the spring primary.

For example, if the county voters approve home rule, the county board could then levy an amusement tax like the City of Chicago does.

If I've read the rules correctly the Windy City levies an amusement tax on tickets of 5 percent of admission receipts for live theatrical, musical and other live cultural performances in places where the maximum capacity is more than 750 persons.

Part of the opposition to home rule is that any new ordinance might snag other events sponsored by churches or other non-profits.

First, even Chicago's ordinance exempts amusements held by religious, charitable and not-for-profit organizations used for fund raising purposes.

Second, most local festivals and events would not be covered because there aren't any tickets sold anyway.

Third, the county could easily draft an ordinance that did not include sporting events such as anything at the high school.

Fourth, religious gatherings couldn't be taxed anyway under existing law, so no one would be going after the Baptist camp for their youth events anyway.

So what could the county do with an Amusement Tax?

Various accounts of this year's four-day Gathering of the Juggalos give attendance at more than 10,000. Let's do the math. Tickets were $175 a person, so 10,000 x $175 comes to $1.75 million. A five percent amusement tax would have generated $87,500 for the county.

That's more than eight times what it costs the sheriff's department. It's time for the county to take the issue to the voters.

Here's another suggestion. Use the funds not only to cover costs associated with the event, but make investments in other tourism that could pay off in years to come.

Designate 25 percent for law enforcement (including some for the municipal police departments in the county). Take another quarter for medical costs (ambulance as well as the hospital).

Designate the other 50 percent for tourism development. Send another 25 percent to the Hardin County Bed Tax Committee (the local tourism group in the county) for additional marketing and other projects as they see fit.

That would leave 25 percent for capital projects. Hardin County is full of state and federal sites that are suffering due to neglect and lack of funding, not to mention the impact of river flooding, wind storms and ice storms from the past couple of years.

One relatively small project could be to add interpretive and educational signage at Cave-in-Rock State Park. It's a historic site but the only interpretation is the park brochure on a bulletin board under a piece of broken plexiglass. If that isn't bad enough, the "facts" in the brochure are incorrect.

Hardin County leaders should take a field trip to Johnston City. It took a number of tries, but voters there finally approved Home Rule. It's been a blessing to the cash-strapped city.

Hardin County's one of the three smallest counties in the state. Tourism is one of the few opportunities it has to grow. It's easy to notice the bad when it comes to Hogrock and the Gathering, but don't overlook the good it can bring as well.

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