County budget approved despite tax cut battle

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11599938998343.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘County Board member Chris Johnson (R-4) reads from a prepared statement in opposition to the Democrats' proposed tax cut.’);

The Winnebago County Board approved its $214 million 2007 budget Sept. 28, just days before the start of the new fiscal year.

Approving the new budget was not without snags, however. With an election just six weeks away, Republicans and Democrats faced off over a number of issues.

Pete MacKay (R-5) objected to the proposed $25,000 for Rockford’s newly created truancy department.

“I don’t think it’s any of the county’s business,” MacKay said, “to be involved in truancy in District 205, or any other district.”

Gary Jury (R-3) echoed the sentiment and added, “I don’t feel that this is going to make a bit of difference on the truancy of our children.”

The board agreed to lay the matter over for the next meeting.

John Harmon (R-4) questioned whether an amendment to carry over unused Health Department funds in the amount of $100,000 would result in an equal distribution throughout the county in 2007.

Dorothy Redd (D-6) responded, “We spent a lot of money in the past, up north, and it has never been divided equally.” Redd defended her district’s need for these funds.

Pearl Hawks, a fellow District 6 Democrat, added the Health Department would distribute the money where it is most needed.

Angie Goral (D-7) indicated her district would benefit as well.

In the end, the nine amendments remaining on the agenda were approved, with MacKay and Harmon voting “no.”

Board members were then given an opportunity to offer new amendments to the 2007 budget.

Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) proposed the Financial Compliance Unit be funded for only six months while the FCU’s effectiveness is re-evaluated. Republicans and Democrats were united in passing the amendment, with the exception of Tim Simms (R-14).

District 8 Democrat Phil Johnson moved to fund the juvenile detention facility out of the county’s 1 percent public safety tax approved in 2002, rather than from the general fund.

Republicans fired back, arguing that this was not how the voters intended the tax to be used, and that the general fund has always paid for the detention center’s operation. Jury called Johnson’s plan “irresponsible.”

“To divert this money to pay down the debt is like taking your paycheck and going to a saloon and spending it,” Jury objected.

Although Johnson could gather the support of only five other Democrats, MacKay pointed out to fellow Republicans, “If juvenile detention doesn’t have something to do with public safety, I don’t know what does.”

Chris Johnson (R-4) claimed that the plan to fund the facility from the 1 percent jail tax would result in cuts to other programs.

Phil Johnson argued that nothing would have to be cut, but the motion failed.

Phil Johnson wasn’t discouraged from proposing some other ideas during the meeting. He moved to take $100,000 from the host fee to put toward leaf pickup in unincorporated parts of the county. Phil Johnson explained that residents need other options due to the anti-burning ordinance.

Chris Johnson again claimed other programs would need to be cut for this to happen. Phil Johnson argued $350,000 from the host fee had not yet been allocated.

The board seemed to agree the money Phil Johnson asked for simply wouldn’t be enough to do the job.

MacKay, who is also Rockford Township Highway Commissioner, remarked, “$100,000 wouldn’t take you around the block,” which filled the room with laughter and applause. MacKay acknowledged Johnson’s good intentions, but said rescinding the burning ordinance would be a more feasible solution.

Phil Johnson brushed himself off again for the much-anticipated motion to lower the property tax rate from 2.5 cents to 2.2 cents. Phil Johnson said this would collectively save taxpayers more than $1 million.

Republicans were quick to point out the savings would be only $5 on a $100,000 home.

Despite the modest savings for taxpayers, Democrats were united in support of Johnson’s plan. MacKay crossed party lines and was the only Republican to vote for the tax cut.

“It’s an absolute farce for political people on this board to run around saying, for example, to elect Republicans because they lower taxes, but they don’t,” MacKay charged.

Republicans were not subtle in their implications that the Democrats were simply posturing for the upcoming election. Jim Webster (R-2) questioned why Phil Johnson had supported the levy the previous year.

Rick Pollack (R-13) argued the tax cut was not worth risking the county’s ability to respond to unforeseen emergencies, and added, “To bring this up six weeks prior to this election, I find rather unusual.”

There are seven contested board seats in the November election.

Chris Johnson read a prepared rebuttal to the Democrats’ proposal and proclaimed, “I believe the voters will see through this spin.” He went on to again ask Phil Johnson which jobs or services he’d choose to cut to make up for lost revenue.

Harmon called the Democrats’ tax cut plan “unlawful electioneering” during a bitter attack. He suggested, “We are perhaps not levying quite enough money.”

Phil Johnson rebuked the Republican “doom and gloom” scenarios and reiterated, “I’m going to vote ‘yes’ for this because I believe it’s time to start giving the taxpayers a break.” Phil Johnson noted that property assessments have gone up and argued the county had collected more than enough money.

Responding to accusations, Phil Johnson claimed, “It was not political for me. It was constituents.” Republicans roared with laughter.

District 12 Democrat L.C. Wilson urged fellow board members to conduct themselves in a more professional manner before speaking in support of the tax cut.

“It would be something that we could give back,” Wilson said, acknowledging that it wasn’t a lot. “It’s something.”

The Democrats’ property tax cut plan was defeated, and all tax levies were ultimately approved unamended.

Just prior to the final budget approvals, MacKay took a shot at fellow Republican Chris Johnson’s prepared statement for falsely attributing a budget fiasco in the 1980s to Democrats. MacKay alleged Republicans had artificially inflated income projections to improve the county’s spending budget.

“The money never came back, and now they’re trying to blame the Democrats on that?” MacKay asked. “I’m sorry. As a Republican, that’s embarrassing.” MacKay’s remark drew groans from others in his party.

More than $18 million in road funds was approved for various projects, which will be matched by federal, state and other sources.

The board also agreed to waive building permit fees for unincorporated areas affected by the Sept. 4 flooding.

Republicans Randy Olson, Eugene Quinn and Patti Thayer were absent from the meeting.

From the Oct. 4-10, 2006, issue

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