Aurand challenges Christiansen

Returning for his first Winnebago County Board meeting since undergoing surgery May 3, Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) appeared fit for duty in dealing with some tests from Doug Aurand (D-3).

During the May 10 meeting, while Christiansen was home recovering, Aurand argued the merits of eliminating the 50-cent toll on the Frank G. Bauer Parkway, commonly known as the Harlem Toll, bridging Rockford and Machesney Park.

Aurand suggests “creative financing” during the next budget cycle to pay down the bridge bonds early. At the current rate, the bridge will be paid for in 2012.

“Let’s do away with that toll bridge,” Aurand urged. “I’ll tell you that’s the best tool you’re gonna get for economic development, moving people east and west.”

Aurand added the move would alleviate traffic congestion in other areas, such as Route 2 and Latham Road.

A report Aurand requested May 10 from staff regarding the bridge’s finances still had not been provided in time for the May 24 meeting. Aurand, however, brought a report of his own to keep the issue on the front burner.

“We did receive what is called a Toll Bridge Violation Report, and I think it’s very interesting,” Aurand said. “During the month of April, there were 156,972 traffic count. 24,155 did not pay a toll.”

The report, supplied by the Winnebago County Highway Department, indicates 15.39 percent of motorists using the bridge in April did not pay the toll, resulting in $9,397.12 of lost revenue for the month.

“It’s not fair to the 85 percent of the people who are paying the toll,” Aurand charged. “If I was running a restaurant, I couldn’t afford to let 15 people, 15 percent, walk out without paying their bill.”

Aurand indicated the bridge’s lost revenue over the past four years is in excess of $300,000.

“We have filming equipment out there, and there’ve been some court cases,” Aurand acknowledged, but said, “The state’s attorney’s not in a great rush to prosecute these people.”

Instead, the county has since posted sheriff’s deputies at the toll during peak hours to enforce compliance.

Aurand argued the expense of deploying resources to post deputies on the bridge is all the more reason to get rid of the 50-cent charge.

As discussion about eliminating the toll closed, Christiansen took some wind out of Aurand’s sail by claiming the idea as his own.

“That’s an initiative that we started about a year ago,” Christiansen asserted.

“Shortly after we started our Capital Improvement Plan, I requested both Mr. [Steve] Chapman [county administrator] and Mr. [Joe] Vanderwerff [county engineer] to look at that very issue,” Christiansen stated. “Unfortunately, we don’t generate enough out of that bridge fund, but I thought somewhere along the line…that we could put that to bed.”

Following the meeting, Aurand was skeptical as to how thoroughly Christiansen explored the possibility of paying the bonds off early.

Despite the revenues lost in toll violations, Christiansen said: “The good news is, at least it’s paying for itself. We’ve not had to dip into taxpayers’ pockets to cover that, but that doesn’t make this right…We’re gonna stay on that.”

Christiansen and Aurand were also clearly at odds over another issue first brought up during the previous meeting two weeks earlier.

May 10, Aurand questioned the chairman’s appointment of Tami Verstraete to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Aurand was successful in his motion to lay over the appointment until Verstraete’s qualifications were supplied to board members.

Aurand also took exception to the manner in which the ZBA position was changing guard. Verstraete is to replace Johanna Koslofski, but Aurand contended Koslofski had not been notified she wouldn’t be re-appointed. Aurand said Koslofski told him she’d found out by reading the May 10 agenda.

“I think we should put her back on,” Aurand argued. “I think she’s done an outstanding job, and I don’t know any reason why we’d want to remove this person.”

“If anything, this will reaffirm the fact that I would not appoint her,” Christiansen fired back, maintaining he had, in fact, contacted Koslofski. “It would stay vacant before I would appoint her at this point.”

Aurand responded, “That is your privilege, Mr. Chairman, but we also have the privilege to vote against someone that you bring forth if we don’t want that person.”

Koslofski, a real estate broker, had been appointed to five years on the ZBA, in addition to staying on for another year past her term’s expiration. Aurand expressed concern there would no longer be anyone on the ZBA with expertise in real estate—something he said has always been present during his years in local government.

Jim Webster (R-2), however, noted someone with a real estate background on the ZBA could just as easily be perceived as unfair with regard to conflict-of-interest issues.

Pete MacKay (R-5), who’d spoken with Koslofski May 24, also weighed in on the matter, alleging politics were behind the new appointment.

MacKay said to Christiansen, “She was told by you, Mr. Chairman—according to her—that she was not going to be re-appointed because somebody who wanted to make a political footstep was going to be appointed to that in place of her.”

Quickly responding, Christiansen boomed: “Absolutely not. Absolutely false. Just absolutely not true.”

Aurand’s motion to separate Verstraete from the list of other appointments failed, and she was ultimately approved by the Board.

John Harmon (R-4) has been at odds with Aurand, implying Aurand’s board actions in recent months have been politically motivated. Aurand rigorously denies the accusation.

To some, it may appear Aurand is shaping up to be Christiansen’s most likely challenger for chairmanship in the 2008 election.

Asked whether he plans to run for the County Board’s top spot, Aurand responded: “At this point in time, no, I’m not considering running for chairman.” Aurand did add, however, “I’ll never say never.”

Christiansen was appointed in the spring of 2004 to replace Kris Cohn, who stepped down to accept a position with the Department of Education. Christiansen was able to retain his seat after defeating Paul Gorski (D) the following November.

from the May 30-June 5, 2007, issue

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