County board Dems debate GOP on real estate tax relief

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119143632517048.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘The Republican caucus huddles, as County Board member Peter MacKay votes against his party, charging, “You want to take one of the wealthiest companies in the United States and rip off Winnebago County taxpayers by allowing these people to keep from paying real estate taxes.” ‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-119143636711112.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Sept. 27 marked the resignation of Patti Thayer (R-9), who has served nearly seven years on the board.‘);

With the 2008 fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Winnebago County Board members wrestled over a number of details before approving the $217.4 million budget Sept. 27.

Democrats on the Republican-controlled board offered up another property tax break this year. Per the Democratic plan, county tax bills would have been cut by about $9. The GOP spending plan means a property tax bill on a $100,000 home would be about $6 higher than last year.

Republicans consider Democratic tax-cut proposals to be nothing more than political maneuvering. Democrats argue citizens would rather keep the $9 in their pockets than have the county take it.

The Democrats’ plan of attack has been consistent since last year’s budget debate: Push for tax cuts Republicans will be put in the position of opposing. GOP-defeated tax reductions are something Democratic candidates are certain to remind voters of prior to the 2008 election.

Republicans call reducing property taxes fiscally irresponsible, and political.

Kyle Logan (R-3) declared, “I cannot support mortgaging the county’s financial position, now and in the future, for a downpayment on certain people’s 2008 election campaigns.”

While savings of $9 may not look like much on the surface, Democrats say such leadership would have a domino effect when other taxing bodies see county government can get by with less.

Winnebago County residents pay the highest property taxes in the state.

Fundamental differences over fiscal policy

Democrats were not alone in being accused of political maneuvering Sept. 27. When Republicans, in a charge led by Chairman Scott Christiansen (R), submitted a Resolution Expressing Intent to Incrementally Reduce the Public Safety Sales Tax, Democrats pointed their fingers right back.

Doug Aurand (D-3) called the resolution little more than a “feel-good” measure.

“I believe this resolution is a waste of our time and nothing more than re-election propaganda,” Aurand accused. “We should ask the voters at the next general election if they wish to reduce real estate taxes, or reduce the Public Safety Sales Tax when the bonds for the public safety building are paid off.”

Democratic and GOP leaders are polar opposites on the issue of whether property tax cuts are good fiscal policy.

Despite their push last year to reduce the sales tax by a quarter-percent, Democrats prefer keeping the Public Safety Tax around, because the burden is shared by visitors to the county. Republicans, on the other hand, argue the county’s slice of the tax-bill pie is too small to allow for any breathing room. The county’s share is about 7 percent of the total tax bill.

Rick Pollack (R-13) said if Aurand wants to save taxpayers money, he should talk to his Democratically-controlled House and governorship about that. Jim Webster (R-2) agreed.

“If we really want to reduce taxes,” Webster suggested, “let’s talk to Springfield about how we fund our schools.”

Rockford Public School District 205, Webster pointed out, accounts for more than half of a tax bill.

John Harmon (R-4) argued the merits of property tax over sales tax.

“Poor people get to pay sales tax, and they pay sales tax, pretty much, on every single cent they earn, because they have to spend everything they earn,” Harmon explained. “Whereas property tax, interestingly enough, is not entirely regressive. Large corporations and very wealthy people tend to own a very great deal of property. They, therefore, pay a much higher property tax, relative to their total wealth.”

The resolution, which is non-binding, suggests the 1-percentage point tax be reduced only after the bonds are retired. The measure also stipulates excess Public Safety Tax revenues should be used to expedite paying down the bonds, currently projected to retire in 2024, potentially saving taxpayers interest costs.

Aurand’s motion to take the resolution off the table was defeated in a 15-12 vote. Karen Elyea (D-11) voted in-line with Republicans, while Pete MacKay (R-5) sided with Democrats on the issue.

Just prior to the 18-9 approval of the resolution, Phil Johnson (D-8) said: “Tonight, we’re giving people two choices: Choice A is we can give them immediate tax relief; lower their property taxes. Or, B: We can tell them that, some time 15 years in the future…we might be able to save them some money. I think the people would rather have A than B.”

Although future boards are not bound by the resolution, they will have to vote on it every two years.

Referencing the approval of a 10-year property tax abatement for Con-Way Freight, Inc., earlier in the evening, MacKay wondered when citizens would get a similar break.

“I don’t know how, in one night, we told the taxpayers that we have no intention to do anything that would reduce their property taxes, right after we have given a major tax abatement to one of the largest companies in the United States,” MacKay noted. “This is absolute thievery.”

Fellow Republican Harmon respectfully disagreed, arguing Con-Way will still be paying plenty of taxes. Con-Way is investing $5 million in an expansion project, which promises the addition of 10 jobs.

Just as tax abatements are granted to keep businesses in the county, Paul Gorski (D-5) argued, citizens should also be given incentives to stick around.

In the end, all attempts at reducing property taxes failed. Although MacKay crossed the aisle to support the Democrats’ push, Elyea cancelled out his vote by siding with Republicans.

Round 2: the budget

Democrats struck often in their attempts to affect the 2008 budget. The apparent defection of Elyea, who voted with Republicans to successfully block a number of Democratic amendments, did not aid their cause, even with help of MacKay.

A year ago, board members were asked for a one-time allocation of $100,000 to support the presence of a Law Enforcement Aviation Coalition (LEAC) helicopter in Winnebago County. LEAC returned this year asking for the same gift.

Mel Paris (D-8) noted the funding was the subject of considerable debate on the Public Safety Committee last year—something he says never came before the committee this time around.

Johnson argued increasing the General Fund deficit to $1.6 million is poor fiscal policy. The General Fund is fueled by property tax revenues.

While Democrats did not question the value of LEAC, they believed funding would more appropriately come from the Public Safety Tax. Some also felt LEAC Chief Pilot Randy Olson (R-1) should have abstained from the vote.

Democrats also tried to divert funding for a new juvenile detention center away from the General Fund, again arguing it as a legitimate public safety expense that should be paid for out of the tax for public safety.

Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) argued, however, the campaign to pass the sales tax referendum promised voters the money would only be used to build a new jail, fund alternative programs and improve the justice system.

“It was not to be used for everything that had public safety attached to it,” Aiello said, much to the disagreement of Aurand.

“It was never said that we were going to just use the money for the very line that she is now trying to define,” Aurand retorted. “You’re trying to suggest we don’t pay it [the juvenile detention center] out of the 1 percent? Shame on you.”

Pollack again pointed his finger downstate, telling Democrats, “If anybody ought to be angry about something, they ought to be angry about the fact that the state government of Illinois is only funding the juvenile detention center 15 percent.”

George Anne Duckett (D-12) said if Republicans wish to go to Springfield to complain, she’ll be the first one on the bus. Duckett added, for that matter, complaints should be directed to the nation’s capital as well.

Harmon questioned the last-minute objections by Democrats on the night the board was to pass its budget. While he agreed some of their points may have merit, he wondered why the issues weren’t brought up earlier.

“These things are never brought up until, you know, there’s a chance to churn the waters,” Harmon alleged


Never at a loss to respond in-kind to Harmon’s accusations of politicking, Aurand replied: “Mr. Harmon, you have a great idea. I think it would be great if this Republican-controlled board got the budget done in June. …Then we would have fair time, but we don’t have fair time. It’s a last-minute thing every time.”

A Democratic attempt to block $50,000 in Host Fee funds toward the construction of a conservatory was also defeated. The conservatory is to be named in honor of Dan Nicholas, a substantial contributor to Republican coffers.

MacKay, the only Republican to dissent the allocation, argued: “We’re collecting that money and spreading it around for the political gain of some people on the board, but not for the majority. I think this board is gonna go down as a tax-and-spend board for time immemorial.”

Democrats call the move a waste of taxpayer dollars, but John Sweeney (R-14) responded, “The mere timing of bringing these matters up is irresponsible on its face, and kind of embarrassing to this board.”

Gorski noted, however, “I have a hard time explaining to my constituents that we’re gonna be funding an observatory, but not funding preventative programs to keep people out of jail.”

GOP throws Dems a bone

Elyea’s walk across the aisle seemed to pay off for Democrats on one issue: More dollars for alternative programs.

Elyea’s request to increase alternative program spending by $400,000 met with no Republican opposition. The amendment brings the 2008 alternative program allocation to $2 million, which will prevent cuts from the current plan developed in committee.

All night, board Democrats called for funding of prevention programs, instead of just rehabilitative ones. People are essentially forced to become criminals, said Johnson, before the county will intervene. So far, the county has set addressing recidivism as a top priority.

Angie Goral (D-7), who became visibly emotional, said she’d expected a more proactive approach to preventing teen crime with the passage of the Public Safety Tax.

Goral argued the youth-on-youth violence is breeding a “criminal of tomorrow,” which she assured will keep our jail filled.

“The county board must allocate funds for programs that will encourage the children of Winnebago County to be crime-free,” Goral said as she succumbed to tears. “I’m tired of seeing these kids not getting the help they need. Why are we not trying to keep kids out of jail?”

While not promising prevention programs would result from the extra funding, Elyea explained: “It’s hard to quantify, or qualify, success with the kids, because we don’t see the success until five, seven, eight years later, when they’re not arrested. I think it’s important to keep the lights on at the community centers in the neighborhoods to give the kids something to do after school.”

Alternative program grants have not yet been finalized, so it’s unclear whether Democrats will see the sort of preventive programs they’re demanding.

Scales to tip in '08?

The power balance on the board is 16-12 in favor of Republicans, not counting an additional tie-breaking vote from Chairman Christiansen, if necessary. Democrats, however, are confident they’ll gain seats in November 2008.

Some would argue board Republicans have weakened this year with the losses of several board members. Dave Krienke stepped down to assume his new role as Roscoe village president. Ray Graceffa resigned for health reasons. Krienke and Graceffa were replaced by newcomers Kyle Logan and Kelly Vecchio (R-7), respectively.

Political youngsters Logan and Vecchio will most certainly have a fight on their hands if they want to retain their seats, which Democrats undoubtedly have their eyes on. Republicans account for 10 of the 14 terms expiring in 2008.

The chairman’s seat is also expected to be contested on each side of the aisle. Early indications are Gorski and John Nelson may faceoff in the February Democratic Primary. Randy Sturm is expected to challenge Christiansen on the GOP side.

Sept. 27 also marked the resignation of Patti Thayer (R-9), who has served nearly seven years on the board.

Chairman Christiansen will name Thayer’s Republican successor in coming weeks, subject to board approval, but some see the series of resignations as a weakening of GOP clout. Winnebago County Housing Authority Board Chairman Fred Wescott (R) is rumored to be the favorite to succeed Thayer.

In August, the local daily indicated Wescott was among attendees of a public housing conference in Dallas—a trip that reportedly cost Winnebago County taxpayers more than $26,000.

from the Oct. 3, 2007, issue

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