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D80 eyes tentative tax levy

MOUNT VERNON — The Mount Vernon City Schools District 80 Board of Education approved the fiscal year 2022 tentative levy during Monday’s meeting.

Superintendent Ryan Swan said that the district always adopts the final levy during the December board meeting, but the tentative levy must be on display for 20 days.

“We are a tax-capped county, so there is a limiting rate that is put on us, a threshold basically you can’t go above,” Swan said. “The three big figures are used to calculate what that limiting tax rate that we are available to use, which is based on our EAV (Equalized Assessed Value) of property within our district, new construction within our district and then CPI (Consumer Price Index).”

Swan explained that the way the system is set up, school districts have to estimate those numbers, because EAV and new construction numbers are not finalized until the Spring.

“We always have to come up with an estimate on what the EAV (is), then the new property and then when the assessor’s office in the spring finalizes all of those numbers then they adjust them,” Swan said. “So a lot of what we do with the levy is an estimation of those two figures. So this year we have took a three year average on what our EAV and new construction has been and use that as an average as opposed to just plugging in an arbitrary number.”

Swan said another factor to consider is the CPI, which is basically the rate of inflationary costs, which is set by the state. He said looking back 10 years, CPI was typically in the 1-3% range, and right now it is much higher than 5%.

“I think the real CPI is 7% or 8%, but the threshold that the state sets for tax levy and tax cap is 5%,” Swan said.

Swan said that those figures are not set by the district with EAV and new property being handled by the assessor’s office and CPI being set by the state. He said when they input the CPI number into the formula to determine the total monies they can levy for this year, it pushes the district over the 4.99% threshold.

Swan said based on the three year averages for EAV and new property, as well as CPI being at 5%, for the district to capture the maximum amount they would have to do a 7.7% increase compared to last year.

“When we go past 4.99% in December, we would have to conduct a Truth in Taxation hearing, which is like when we have a budget hearing before the board, it is just an extra step, we have to have notification in the newspaper for that,” Swan said. “What that does is it notifies that we are having a hearing because we are going beyond the 4.99%.”

Swan said a good financial practice is to have between three to six months of cash reserves on hand. He said even as the recent audit has shown the district as being good financial stewards of taxpayer dollars, there are other financial challenges coming up.

“Number one is the minimum wage increase that we have been dealing with the last few years and will be for the next several years to come,” Swan said. “That is going to be an ever increasing cost that is beyond our control because minimum wage is a requirement from the State of Illinois. ... So that is going to add additional costs as we move into the future.”

Swan said also in 2024 it is possible that certified staff salaries may be tied to CPI in upcoming legislation. He said transportation/busing costs are expected to continue to gradually increase as well as the increase of general supplies and services.

“If we did 4.99% like normal, we would be leaving close to $200,000 on the table, eligible money that we would not capture for this year. If that was only a one-year deal, it is not a big deal, but once you don’t capture that money then that $200,000 is not going to get made up, because we are only going to roughly increase what the tax rate is,” Swan said.

Swan said that in order to be financially proactive as a district and be respectful of taxpayer dollars, his recommendation is to not go the full 7.7%.

“Because of the burden that places on the taxpayer, but I am going to recommend that we do a 6.98% increase this year, which will not capture all of that money but it will capture a chunk from that,” Swan said. “That total amount (levied) is $7,492,326.”

Swan said this amount will allow the district to keep its financial profile up, have operating reserves as well as reserves for anything unexpected.

“This is not just a District 80 thing, every school across the whole state ... every tax-capped county is more than likely going to be going into a Truth in Taxation hearing,” Swan said.

District 80 Board President Matt Reynolds commented on the CPI.

“It is the largest it has been, I went back and looked, I think 2008 was the next largest and it was 4% then,” Reynolds said. “Before that I think it went all the way down to 95/96 and it never hit two and a half (percent) I think.”

Swan emphasized that it really is the state-set CPI that is the biggest factor.

“Because of that we realize the impact that has on the taxpayer, therefore we don’t want to try and capture the full amount, but we do have to prepare for some of these financial challenges that will be coming down the line over the coming years,” Swan said.

The December meeting is planned for Dec. 12. The Truth in Taxation hearing will be at this meeting.

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HAJC hosts Landlords Section 8 Meet & Greet

MOUNT VERNON — County, city, local landlords and more were present at the Housing Authority of Jefferson County (HAJC) for a meet and greet on Tuesday.

The event provided an opportunity for community members to meet with HAJC Executive Director Michele Williams, who began in that position in June.

“The purpose behind the meeting, since I have just started, was actually to greet and meet our existing landlords, open the door for new landlords and give them the opportunity to communicate amongst each other so that they would know how we run our programs,” Williams said. “For the housing choice voucher program, we need more landlords and we need more people to invest in that program meaning that if they have property or are willing to even buy property so they can help.”

Williams said it is very difficult to get landlords across the country, those who receive a voucher in Jefferson County do not need to reside here, to rent out to those with Section 8 Housing vouchers. She said that common myths include all voucher recipients not taking care of the property as well as housing authorities not offering guidance/vetting their applicants.

“We do inspections of all our units annually. ... We don’t just give a voucher to anybody who applies and qualifies and let them go, because a lot of them don’t know how to keep a house or apartment,” Williams said.

Williams explained some reasons why a landlord may want to utilize the program.

“They (landlords) don’t have to wait months at a time before they receive the money, if there are any problems we address those problems immediately and we orient our residents and potential residents,” Williams said. “They (landlords) are guaranteed a portion of their rent, all of our residents have to follow HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) guidelines. We do annual HQS (Housing Quality Standards) inspections. So we go in and we do inspections making sure that they are in compliance, the resident as well as the landlord with those standards.”

Williams said that currently HAJC has 99 housing choice (Section 8) vouchers and they have managed to get 66 properties leased up.

“That means that we have 33 that cannot find housing. So in the Section 8 we only have two-thirds of what we are using, because the other 33 can’t find any place to go,” Williams said. “With the emergency housing vouchers, those are geared toward homeless people in shelters. ... We have 15 of those, we could get more from HUD, but we have only been able to give five to residents. So that means we are only at a third of leasing these emergency housing vouchers.”

Williams said that HAJC is also inviting the community to visit, make suggestions and volunteer.

“The Housing Authority of Jefferson County, we don’t only house people, but we also look at them first when it comes down to hiring people. We actually hire within our own community,” Williams said, later adding, “We are interested in people who can help us. We are taking volunteers for our programs on education, people who can offer advice and setting up a program so we can train people to become homeowners and move toward self-sufficiency. I need the assistance from anyone in the community that can help.”

Williams said that her experience as executive director has been great and she thanked the staff and the community for being very welcoming.

“The whole takeaway for me is that they (landlords) will see the need of housing and the willingness to be able to help those opposed to looking to the myth and the profit, it is more of a purpose,” Williams said. “It is all about building a better America through diversity, equity and inclusion for people to live happily and fulfill their lives in their own homes including older adults and people living with disabilities.”

For more information landlords, volunteers and potential tenants may visit the HAJC from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and from 8 a.m. to noon on Fridays, at 109 N. Shiloh Dr. People may also call (618) 244-5910, but walk-ins are encouraged.

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Central Christian to provide free Thanksgiving dinner

MOUNT VERNON — A long-standing tradition at Central Christian Church will make sure everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a good meal and company this Thanksgiving.

The 26th annual Central Christian Church Thanksgiving dinner program is set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving at the church, 301 N. 10th St. in Mount Vernon.

“It is an outreach to the community and the surrounding area to make sure that people have an opportunity to have Thanksgiving dinner with us,” said Steve Reynolds, event organizer and church member.

Due to COVID-19, the last two years have seen the adoption of a drive-thru format as Reynolds explained that there will be multiple options this year.

“We are going to offer three different opportunities. One of them we are bringing people back into the church, so it will be a dine-in,” Reynolds said. “We will also have the drive-thru for people that want to just drive through and pick up a meal. We will also have our deliveries that we do for people who can’t get out and get a meal.”

The menu consists of traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, dressing, green beans, as well as dessert. Reynolds commented on being able to welcome people back inside the church for the program.

“It is a blessing to us that help put this meal together, we are hoping that we can satisfy a need, there are a lot of people in the area that from what we have learned they don’t want to spend a holiday by themselves,” Reynolds said. “We are excited about being able to bring in the dine-in experience this year.”

Central Christian Church has also welcomed back its coat drive after that was on hiatus due to COVID-19.

“We will be able to provide those for the people who come in and join us on Thanksgiving Day,” Reynolds said.

According to Sentinel archives, the annual Thanksgiving dinner has grown steadily since it was founded by a local physician. Reynolds, a dedicated church member, took over the tradition when the physician was no longer able to host it. During the first year’s program, about 150 people were fed.

“This year we are preparing to serve about 2,500 people,” Reynolds said. “What it means to me is it just gives me the opportunity to maybe reach out, be with people and make sure they have a good meal and just be a part of our family for that day. It is open to everyone, we encourage people to attend and we would love to see them on Thanksgiving Day.”

To register for a delivered meal or for more information, contact Central Christian Church at (618) 242-4185.

Cedarhurst The Lights launches Saturday

MOUNT VERNON — Over one million lights, holiday shopping and many other Christmas staples are a short distance away at Cedarhurst Center for the Arts’ new program The Lights.

The Lights includes 10 different professionally made light features along a 3/4 mile walking loop designed to highlight the distinct architecture of each building and the best of the Cedarhurst sculpture park and campus. The program will run for seven weekends from 5 to 9 p.m. Nov. 19 through Dec. 31. The goal is to bring new people to the area, creating a tourism season during the holidays for the community.

Cedarhurst Executive Director Hillary Esser and Cedarhurst Director of Visitor Engagement Courtney Kabat previously discussed the program. Esser said that The Lights offers a walking experience that will highlight the various unique features at Cedarhurst. She said that the walking experience is designed to last an hour to an hour-and-a-half as she explained why.

“The reason for that is because when people come to Mount Vernon to attend The Lights, we don’t want that to be the only thing they do in Mount Vernon. We want them to come to The Lights and then leave our campus to go dine at one of our restaurants, to shop at some of our local businesses, throw a strike at Nu Bowl Lanes, see a movie,” Esser said. “We really want this to be one of several things that people do when they come to Mount Vernon. The idea is to build up our community as a whole.”

Esser said that this is a carefully researched, planned and professionally handled event. She explained that the goals of The Lights are to draw new people to Cedarhurst, to fully utilize the museum’s programs and make sure they are aware of everything that Cedarhurst and the community offers.

“We have so much going on in our community, so much to offer people that we think if they come here they will just be charmed by everything we have to offer,” Esser said.

Esser said that Cedarhurst hired Blachere Illumination out of Christopher to design/fabricate the lights/decorations. She said when she spoke with Blachere Illumination she learned that one of their accomplishments is that Blachere designed/fabricated all of the lights for the Disney Castle.

Kabat said that The Lights has 10 professionally designed light features.

“After all of our touring and all of our different research, every route and every experience has a tunnel. We are thrilled with the tunnel that we have, this is one of the key Instagram moments and all the fun stuff that people like taking photos of,” Kabat said. “Lights and water are always mesmerizing so one of the last features we have will be some lighted installations on our pond, which is going to be beautiful.”

Kabat said along with the walking route for The Lights, other programming/features will include fire pit rentals, building rentals, and warming stations. Over the seven-week period, other events will be happening during The Lights including Cedarhurst welcoming the annual Spero Family Services Festival of Trees to its museum.

“When we started talking about The Lights, what we really realized is that we needed and wanted to kick off the weekend before Thanksgiving and that has historically been the weekend that Spero does their Festival of Trees,” Esser said. “We really try our hardest not to compete with other community organizations. ... The Festival of Trees is now a partnership fundraiser with Spero Family Services and Cedarhurst. We will use Friday, Nov. 18, as our community kick-off GALA.”

This year’s Festival of Trees will be held Saturday, Nov. 19, through Sunday, Nov. 20. Admission is free from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on those days. From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on those days, a ticket for The Lights will be required for admission. The GALA is now sold out, but there are other programs.

Cedarhurst is also partnering with CASA organizations in the area to host two Family Nights (Dec. 11 and Dec. 30), during which children will receive free admission. Other events scheduled during The Lights will include a Christmas Market (Dec. 2-4) and a Supper with Santa (Dec. 16-17).

“This program is much bigger than just Cedarhurst. We have really worked hard to establish various partnerships with other community organizations,” Esser said.

Kabat said that Cedarhurst has partnered with Mount Vernon, Webber, Benton, Hamilton County High School and Sesser-Valier high schools for various features.

“We are thrilled to be able to highlight those pieces and that work in the lights,” Kabat said. “It is something they can be really proud of.”

Admission to the lights will be $15 for adults, $10 for Cedarhurst members and $5 for children. The galleries will be open during The Lights. Esser said Cedarhurst is grateful to all of their sponsors helping make this program possible. For more information, people may visit

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New eatery opens at former Bob Evans site

MOUNT VERNON — The new restaurant JJ’s Sports Bar and Grill is opening its doors this week at the site of the former Bob Evans at 4424 Fairfax Dr. in Mount Vernon.

The eatery, described as a family-oriented restaurant, is owned by the Jacinto family which also owns the local El Rancherito. Even so, co-owner Rosa Romo Jacinto was quick to point out that JJ’s Sports Bar and Grill has a totally different menu and concept than El Rancherito.

Jacinto said parents are invited to bring their children to JJ’s Sports Bar and Grill. There are claw machines and other games for kids, a lot of TVs to watch sporting events, and more. There is also hot chocolate available for children and coffee drinks for adults, as well as a wide range of food, Jacinto said.

The new restaurant will serve brunch, lunch and dinner every day it’s open. The menu includes a wide range of homemade food such as pasta, burgers, wings, steak, huevos rancheros, nachos, desserts, and much more.

“Our food is homemade,” Jacinto said. “We have a pasta that’s a recipe of the cook’s wife. Some of the desserts are my recipes. ... The menu will be available soon on Facebook.”

The local Bob Evans restaurant closed in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jacinto said it took her family almost a year to renovate the building and get it ready to open JJ’s Sports Bar and Grill.

“We tore up the whole dining area, the whole area where they served their food,” Jacinto said. “We tore that out and put a bar in. It took a lot of time to renovate that. It almost took a year. We started in February of this year.”

Tony Iriti, executive director of the Jefferson County Development Corporation, said he is glad to see a new restaurant opening up where Bob Evans used to be.

“Having it open back up after the closing of Bob Evans back in 2020 is just tremendous for this area of the interstate interchange,” Iriti said. “We’re really excited about it. It’s a little different twist on some of the other restaurants around, so we think it’s going to do really well.”

JJ’s Sports Bar and Grill had its soft opening on Sunday and its official opening on Monday of this week. The public is encouraged to visit the restaurant’s Facebook page for updates on the restaurant hours and the menu items. In addition to Rosa Romo Jacinto and her husband Luis, the other owners of the eatery include her father Jose, her uncle Rufino, and her cousin Juan Carlos.

“We invite everyone to come out and give it a try,” Rosa Romo Jacinto said. “We appreciate everybody’s patience as we’re beginning.”

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RLC to purchase security cameras for MarketPlace site

INA — Rend Lake College is moving forward with the purchase of a security camera package for the RLC MarketPlace in Mount Vernon.

The cameras are needed to enhance security at the Mount Vernon site, which will eventually be home to a new manufacturing academy. The RLC Board of Trustees Tuesday granted permission to purchase the security camera package from Security Alarm using tort liability funds. The cost of the package is $48,314.

“Updating the security camera system will help ensure that we can continue to provide a safe environment for students and visitors of the Rend Lake MarketPlace,” said RLC Chief of Campus Police Damon Sims.

In June, it was announced that RLC had been awarded a $5 million federal grant to construct a new manufacturing academy at the RLC MarketPlace. The grant comes from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA). The project is funded under EDA’s American Rescue Plan Economic Adjustment Assistance program.

The academy will be a “state-of-the-art manufacturing training center” that will be called the Southern Illinois Manufacturing Academy (SIMA), Sentinel archives state.

The federal grant seeks to expand manufacturing workforce training opportunities in a region that has been impacted by the declining use of coal. The EDA investment will be matched with $1.2 million in local funds to support the programming necessary to address current skill gaps and the retirement-induced staffing crisis. The academy will include space for students to learn about the “actual manufacturing process from beginning to end,” the archives state.

Also on Tuesday, the RLC Board approved adopting the 2022 Tax Levy (payable in 2023). The percentage of the tax levy increase is 4.79%, excluding debt service, officials said. The proposed tax levy will be filed in accordance with the Truth in Taxation compliance laws.

“The percentage increase in our corporate and special purpose tax levy is less than the percentage increase in our district’s equalized assessed value and less than the rate of inflation,” said RLC Chief Financial Officer John Gulley. “This means that we can anticipate that our tax rate for the district will continue to remain stable as it has for the last several years. We feel that this year’s tax levy allows us the resources we need to provide our community with the services they expect while remaining a good value for taxpayers of the district.”

Other RLC Board actions Tuesday included:

  • The board granted permission to purchase two FANUC industrial trainer robots from Aidex Educational Systems using remaining Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grant funds.
  • The board approved a new course — AUTO 2213 Hybrid and Electric Vehicles — and authorized its submission to the Illinois Community College Board.
  • The board granted permission to create the stipend position for Facilitator of Chocolate Factory, effective Nov. 16, 2022. The stipend position will be prorated for the remainder of fiscal year 2022.
  • The board accepted the resignations of Maintenance Technician Rodney Summers, Subsidized Child Care Specialist Alyssa VanZant, and TRIO-Upward Bound Advisor Reba Ourun.
  • The board granted permission to advertise for three Maintenance Technicians and revise the job description.
  • The board granted permission to create the position and job description, advertise for, and ratify the appointment of Technician — Shipping & Receiving/Grounds at the Dec. 13 meeting.