By Joe Baker & Frank Schier
Senior Editor & Publisher
This week the Winnebago County Board will vote on whether to put the proposed jail construction plan on the ballot in November.
The publics final opportunity to ask questions passed Tuesday night when a forum took place at Ellis Academy. So far, there has been a notable lack of appearance by the general public at jail proposal hearings.
Two things surprise me, said Chris Bowman, host of a popular talk show on WNTA, 1330 AM. The first thing is the public not showing up at the hearings, but Im not sure if thats apathy or if people have just given up on government and fighting taxes.
The second thing that surprises me is that of the four public hearings; at the unveiling of the plan, barely a handful of the 28 county board members who represent 250,000 people bothered to show up. Thats a sad comment about a facility that will cost us all $100,000 a bed!
Officials and some of the media have presented the plan as a $130 million project. That is just the bond issue alone. The total cost of the project including operational cost and interest is $580 million$22 million plus per year for 22 years. That is more than double what the desegregation case cost the Rockford School District.
The growth of the surrounding towns, Roscoe, Rockton, Machesney Park, Loves Park, Durand, Winnebago, Pecatonica and Belvidere has been credited to Rockfords high taxes during the desegregation lawsuit. The population shift was called green flight.
With tax proposals coming from the City of Rockford on cell and regular phones, water bills, gas bills and ComEd bills, plus bond issuances and tax requests from the Park District and Rock Valley College and Rockford School District 20,5 many predict another, more severe round of green flight from the area by both residents and businesses, reducing the tax base.
Some critics have charged that since alternative revenue bonds will be usedas the school district didif the sales tax drops off, it would permit the use of property taxes above the tax cap limits without a vote.
Some taxpayers are disturbed that the proposed sales tax would not be equally applied. Food, medicine and titled vehicles would be exempt. One suggested a quarter-percent increase applied to all instead of a 1 percent increase that exempts dealers in the above commodities.
A large question is if increased sales tax revenue would be used for projects other than public safety.
Projects such as the Perryville Road extension, for example. This could be a back- door source of revenue to carry out that road plan while depriving the taxpayers of any say in the matter.
There are claims that intense pressure by developers is being applied to some county board members to get the Perryville project going again. Developers, it is claimed, are eager to get the road under construction, perhaps completed, before a contemplated
interchange at Ill. Rt. 173 and Interstate 90 becomes reality.
Plans exist for several new subdivisions north of 173, principally between Forest Hills and Mitchell roads. But for these developments to be viable, there needs to be a main access road: Perryville Road.
County Board Member Mary Ann Aiello (R-8) said, No money can be taken from the general fund to be used for highways. Money cannot be transferred in. I never heard of it happening. They are separate funds. Highways are paid for out of the motor fuel tax, and the other is paid out of the public safety tax. That is part of the guarantee of the bonds, that they be spent on public safety.
However, a conflicting statement was given by County Board Member Polly Berg (D-7), who said, I talked with County Administrator Steve Chapman. I asked him what assurance we have that this 1 percent tax we are getting is going to be earmarked for the jail. He said, No, it has to go into the general fund.
Bowman said that Paul Logli said on my show that the money would go into the general fund and confirmed that it could be spent on other projects. However, Logli told Bowman that county board members would never let that happen.
As to linking Perryville and the jail referendum, Aiello said they are two different issues where someone could be for one and against the other.
She went on to say that there will be no excess money provided by the sales tax because of shortages in the States Attorney, Public Defender and County Clerk offices, plus staffing shortages in the probation and corrections departments.
Many of these shortages could be paid for out of uncollected fines. Winnebago States Attorney Paul Logli still has not presented a solution for the estimated $22 million in uncollected fines his office is in charge of collecting.
Aiello also said, I dont know where they come up with that figure, when asked about the potential cost of $580 million. She said personnel costs should not be included.
I think that we have a severe overcrowding problem in the jail. We have to take the long-term solution in both the area of the jail and the justice system, not a short-term Band-Aid. If we dont build for the long-term, well have the same problems we have today, Aiello said.
Unconfirmed reports have it that a 40-page memo to certain county board members has been issued by Winnebago County Board Chairman Kristine Cohn. It is said to contain a long list of talking points for use in selling the jail referendum. The first talking point, reportedly, is that if taxpayers dont vote for the jail, the county will release all the inmates. There is no truth to the claim that inmates will be released.
Berg said she did not receive such talking points.
No alternative or compromise has been presented to the public if the vote fails.
The vote on jail funding will take place at 6 p.m., Thursday, August 22, in the County Board Room on the eighth floor of the Public Safety Building. The meeting is open to the public.