Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz warned Tazewell County board members Monday that he would be required to “take legal action” if the county board approves a questionable expansion of a tax-free zone for a proposed wind farm.
County Chairman Jim Unsicker says that Umholtz is entitled to his opinion, but that opinion is not shared by many people. “(Umholtz’s) view on the expansion of the enterprise zone is diametrically opposed to the view of a number of people on the board, the state, the city and just about anybody else you want to talk to in the state of Illinois,” said Unsicker.
The county – working in tandem with the City of Pekin – has proposed expanding Pekin’s enterprise zone so that a power company could purchase wind turbines tax-free. In exchange, the company would pay a $300,000 certification fee.
In a letter addressed to members of the county board, Umholtz writes, “Let me make myself perfectly clear,” in bold letters. He then adds that the proposed expansion of the enterprise zone does not meet statutory requirements and should not be approved by the county board.
“As always, we try to keep the county out of trouble,” Umholtz told the Pekin Daily Times this morning. “We try to provide advice to keep the county clear of liability or risk.
“Any provided advice ahead of a decision – we hope that advice would be well taken and problems avoided Š”
Businesses built within an enterprise zone are allowed a 100 percent property tax abatement for five years. They also get a sales tax break from the state on materials purchased in the state of Illinois for the project.
In his memo to board members, Umholtz wrote that, “As State’s Attorney, I am charged with the responsibility of providing legal advice to the County Board. I keep in mind that you have a responsibility to legislate on behalf of the citizens of Tazewell County. In over 20 years of serving as a legal advisor to the County, I have appreciated the County’s respect for the law.
“As State’s Attorney, I am also charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law. I rely upon the belief of most citizens that it is important to follow the law. I believe that an essential ingredient in securing legal compliance from our citizens is to have a government that sets an example and follows the law. My concern is solely with the reputation of government to set an example for our constituents and follow the law.”
The proposed expansion would result in a three-foot strip of land running from the existing enterprise zone out to each proposed wind turbine. State law requires that an enterprise zone be contiguous.
At a previous county board meeting – which Umholtz attended – Umholtz told board members that simply extending the enterprise zone with a three-foot strip of land does not “pass the laugh test.”
Umholtz said this morning that he doesn’t think an enterprise zone could be drawn that would be less contiguous.
“Here we have a three foot strip of land that goes from one end of the county to the other Š ” said Umholtz. “Š If we arbitrarily provide a tax break to one business, then it affects the fairness of the tax system.”
Horizon Wind Energy plans to build a wind power plant that will lie partly in Logan County and partly in Tazewell County.
Umholtz said he does not oppose the wind farm; in fact he is an advocate of wind energy, but, “Regardless of how strongly we believe in the cause I don’t believe we should ignore the law. In other words, the end doesn’t justify the means.”
Rather than approving an ordinance amendment to expand the enterprise zone at a previous meeting, board members chose to table the matter. The issue of approving the expansion will still be on the agenda at the July meeting.
Unsicker said he personally approves of changing the enterprise zone.
In his letter to board members, Umholtz also states that, “It is unclear why (County Administrator David) Jones needs to provide you guidance on a legal matter Š ”
Unsicker said Jones is doing his job by consulting with Umholtz on legal issues.
“Mr. Umholtz seems to take issue with Mr. Jones’ recommendation on this issue and other issues, but that’s what the county board hired Mr. Jones for,” Unsicker said. “That’s why this county or any other county (has county) administrators, that’s why they have those people on staff.”
By Nick Vogel and Sharon Woods Harris
Times staff writers
16 July 2008