Christiansen: ‘We’ll develop a plan to reduce a portion of the sales tax’

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117753030719734.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Scott Christiansen said investing in business will ultimately result in lower crime.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117753037113477.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘The new Winnebago County Justice Center was a major component of the chairman’s address.‘);

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) assured citizens the state of Winnebago County is strong during his annual address April 18 at Giovanni’s.

The newly-constructed Winnebago County Justice Center and related Public Safety Tax were major points of the chairman’s presentation.

With a crowd of more than 400 in attendance, the Rockford Chamber of Commerce luncheon was a virtual who’s who of public and private sector leaders.

Einar Forsman, president and CEO of the Chamber, gave introductory remarks before a 75-second ad by title-sponsor TDS Metrocom was projected onto a large screen at the front of the hall, just before Christiansen was welcomed to the podium.

“I believe in accountability and transparency,” Christiansen began. “I am accountable to you, the citizens of Winnebago County, and my administration will remain transparent.”

Clearly a template for his speech, the chairman referred attendees to “Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen’s Report to the Taxpayer,” which had been placed at each table. The reports were paid for by the Christiansen campaign, and 80,000 copies of the report were distributed by the local daily in March alone.

With the new Justice Center nearly ready for business, Christiansen turned his attention to the 1 percentage point Public Safety Tax voters approved in 2002.

Quoting the ballot’s wording, the chairman reminded citizens the funds from the so-called “jail tax” are solely “to be used for crime prevention, detention and other public safety purposes.”

“As good stewards of the people’s money, we have not strayed from that mandate,” Christiansen asserted. “I have sought to take a leadership role in making sure that the project that the voters gave us as a result of the 2002 election would be a success.”

The chairman indicated most of the funds raised by the tax have gone toward construction of the new Justice Center, which will start being occupied in May.

“No surplus funds from the Public Safety Tax will be spent on anything but public safety as long as I am your County Board Chairman,” he promised. “Any surplus in revenues will go back to the taxpayers. The County Board and I are developing a long-range plan for meaningful and sustained tax relief.”

That plan is to reduce the 1 percentage point jail tax.

“One year from now, we’re gonna know exactly where we are in the cost of the building,” Christiansen explained after the address. “To anticipate energy costs, staffing and so forth is a little bit of guesswork, until you’re actually in there.”

The chairman expressed confidence the county will have a firm handle on those expenses in a year.

April 23, an open house and dinner was held at the new Justice Center. The event was paid for by Bovis Lend Lease, construction manager for the $92,400,000 facility. Bovis is also paying for an April 23 luncheon at the Justice Center.

Bovis’ contract, approved in 2003, is for $3.1 million plus direct reimbursable expenses.

Chairman Christiansen pledged continued cooperation with county agencies to protect citizens while improving efficiency in the court system, reducing jail overcrowding and saving money with improved technology.

“When I look out of that window on the fifth floor of the administration building and look at that jail,” Christiansen explained, “not a day goes by that I don’t anguish over how we could possibly prevent that building from reaching capacity.”

Arguing alternatives to incarceration need to be more fully explored, Christiansen stated, “It is not only the humanitarian thing to do, but it makes good economic sense.”

Christiansen reported the county’s 21,984 bookings in 2006 were the highest in 16 years, which he said requires significant personnel.

“This is what drives the cost of county government,” he explained. “In addition to the 1 cent sales tax revenue, 80 percent of our general fund is spent on public safety.”

It costs taxpayers roughly $60 a day to house one inmate, which is why Christiansen stresses rehabilitation while expediting the legal process to limit each inmate’s stay.

“I do not believe that individuals should spend their days in jail when many of them could be spending their days making themselves productive members of society,” he argued.

Instead, he said recidivism should be addressed through educational, vocational and life skills training.

Chairman Christiansen then introduced and told the stories of four people whose lives have been positively affected by various social programs in the county.

“These community-based and county in-house programs are successful tools for helping to alleviate jail overcrowding,” Christiansen noted. “It is more cost effective to rehabilitate an individual than to keep them locked up.”

For his efforts in fighting blight and crime in the community, Christiansen praised Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey’s (I) “Excellence Everywhere” campaign and cited an unprecedented level of cooperation between the city and county.

Indicating a direct correlation between education and crime, the chairman said he’s working with members of the higher education community to develop a day reporting center.

“This cutting-edge center could provide education courses, domestic violence training, and job training to help keep individuals out of the criminal justice system,” he explained, also noting initiatives are in place to address early childhood crime prevention.

The chairman touted the apparent success of intergovernmental efforts to battle truancy in Rockford Public School District 205. Winnebago County provides funds and staff to the program, which he said has resulted in as high as a 30 percent reduction in truancy.

Turning his attention to economic development and infrastructure, the chairman pledged continued cooperation with mayors and village presidents throughout the county.

“I, along with the Winnebago County Board members, have begun to change the perception and approach to county government by taking a leadership role in promoting economic development,” he said. “We must invest in our business community, and we must provide the type of business climate that will help businesses to decide to expand or to locate here.”

Christiansen argued such investment will result in higher property and business values, as well as job creation.

“We need to make sure that every effort is being made to let business know that we have the people and the skills to manufacture their product,” Christiansen noted. “Infrastructure is not just building roads, but it is also providing the tools necessary to build a distribution center like Lowe’s. These investments mean jobs and, as long as I am chairman, we will continue to aggressively seek out these types of opportunities.”

One element the chairman finds crucial is the rail initiative. Through a proposed Rail Authority, he hopes to tie rail, air and ground transport together.

“The trains won’t just come here because we want them to,” Christiansen explained. “They will be operating here because it makes business sense, because it makes sense on a regional basis, and because we will make it make sense by pulling all of the elements necessary together.”

The chairman equates more jobs and commerce to less crime.

“Housing conditions for Winnebago County will get a big boost when crime-ridden complexes like Champion Park, scheduled to be torn down in August 2007, are replaced with livable structures like those that exist in our Hope VI program.”

Christiansen called the Housing Authority Board one of the most hard-working and efficient authorities in the state, indicating Housing and Urban Development (HUD) asked the county’s housing authority to manage Freeport’s Section 8 housing.

Land development, Christiansen argued, must be balanced with quality of life.

In May of last year, the Winnebago County Board approved a $355,000 contract with Nicolosi & Associates, LLC and Chicago-based urban planners Camiros, Ltd., to develop the “2030 Land Use Plan.” Once completed, Chris

tiansen says the plan will be publicized so land use issues will have a greater degree of certainty for citizens.

Chairman Christiansen stated local decisions have national implications, such as the County Board’s recent controversial approval of an ethanol plant.

“The plan is to develop a technology basis for the exploration and implementation of alternative sources of energy here in the Winnebago County region,” he indicated. “There are certain assets and resources available to us in this region, and we need to utilize these resources.”

In addition to reduced reliance on fossil fuels and contributing to the domestic fuel supply, Christiansen says the ethanol plant will benefit Winnebago County corn farmers and bring jobs.

After Rockford voters approved a 1-percentage point sales tax increase for infrastructure improvements the night before the chairman’s address, taxes were surely on the minds of many.

“The county’s share of the property tax has consistently gone down since 2003 and represents only approximately 7 percent of the total tax bill,” Christiansen declared. “Our county tax rate is the lowest it has been in five years.”

He added the county has paid down bonds for the Justice Center, saving taxpayers nearly $68 million in interest and principal.

“Your county government today is providing significantly more services while gaining efficiencies in order to keep your county tax bill as low as possible,” he said.

Summarizing steps the county has made in the past year to improve its draw, Christiansen concluded by plugging the area’s newest brand identity.

“Our region has now become a ‘Real. Original.’ destination.”

Chamber members paid $35 for a seat at the address, and non-members paid $55. Other event sponsors were Engine Studios, WTVO/WQRF and SVL Productions.

Chairman Christiansen’s 2007 State of the County Address can be seen in its entirety at:

from the April 25-May 1, 2007, issue

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