By Stuart R. Wahlin
Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) delivered his annual State of the County address to approximately 300 luncheon attendees April 15 at the Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center. Because the Rockford Chamber of Commerce event also fell on Tax Day, the chairman began his remarks lightly with jabs at the Internal Revenue Service before turning his attention to the more serious business of the county.
“The past year-and-a-half has been very difficult for our community, for businesses and for all of us. Despite signs of recovery, people are still worried and uncertain,” Christiansen acknowledged. “The question is, will we be ready when things do turn around? Despite the difficulties, the state of Winnebago County is still strong. However, we are at a crossroads, a turning point. So far, we are doing more with less, and been able to keep our service levels up.”
Christiansen indicated, however, that revenues are expected to continue declining during the next two years, implying the county’s 218-employee reduction in the last 18 months may not be the end of workforce cuts.
Although the chairman argued county officials had been good stewards of tax dollars by building fund balances and operating under business principles used in the private sector, he reported those funds have now been exhausted.
“We anticipate that there will be more budget adjustments in the months to come,” he said. “Due to the economy, and because the State of Illinois is horribly behind in its payments, we are forced to issue tax anticipation warrants for the first time since the early 1980s.”
The county board will vote April 22 whether to issue $6,266,000 in tax anticipation warrants to make ends meet in the general, detention home, tort judgment and children’s advocacy funds.
Despite the economic rough patch, Christiansen remained optimistic the county is in a good spot to reap benefits once conditions improve.
“Of course, we will do what we must to survive in this economy, within our budget, but we cannot use this recession as an excuse to retreat from pursuing greatness, or failing to be in the right position when things turn around,” he argued. “We must prepare now for the future by investing both in our people and our physical infrastructure.
“We have a hard choice to make,” Christiansen indicated. “We can take the safe way—pull back, wait, watch our jobs go elsewhere, just hoping we can hang on long enough that the tide of the national recovery will one day wash over us. Or, we move forward with reinvestment and innovation to create the best possible business climate for job growth. And after all, it is all about jobs. Government does not make jobs. Therefore, as an entire community, we must set the conditions for job attraction and growth. Now is the time to restructure our government operations. Now is the time to find efficiency and new ways of doing business.”
Christiansen said he plans to continue restructuring efforts began in 2009 to improve efficiency and cooperation between departments, as well as with the City of Rockford and other municipalities.
“We’re breaking down silos, and we’re ending petty turf battles,” he asserted. “We share the same desire for success in our region, and we both understand the urgency to get ’er done.
“Adversity can bring out the best or the worst in people, and also in government,” the chairman added. “What I see every day is people putting aside old grudges, cooperating and working as a team with a shared vision and urgency. Frankly, it is exciting, and why I know we will be stronger than before. In Winnebago County, we are reducing our expenses, keeping the tax rate low, putting in place lean management and accountability models that will carry us into the future. I truly believe this recession will not keep us from greatness, but will inspire us to pursue it. We are a county teaming with smart and generous people who themselves are filled with spirit of service.”
Four initiatives for the coming year
The chairman stressed the importance of continuing to invest in infrastructure to foster investment. He specifically cited the county’s work with the Illinois Department of Transportation to increase permissible load weights in the I-39 and Baxter Road corridor to maximize the business potential for shipping and freight companies in the area.
He also reiterated his commitment to renewable energy and development of green technologies, pointing to the Rockford Global TradePark Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District and the Freedom Field initiative.
Christiansen also expressed optimism that a new Economic Development District created in cooperation with Boone County will open the door for federal infrastructure grants through the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Among the chairman’s top priorities is investment in the Rock 39 Industrial Park at I-39 and Blackhawk Road.
“Manufacturers need clean sites and shovel-ready dirt,” he asserted. “They don’t want to retrofit old buildings. Our buildings just won’t fit their needs. In order to be competitive, we must develop the Rock 39 Industrial Park.”
The county plans to bring sewer and water to the site in the coming year, at which point the park could support an estimated 4,000 jobs, Christiansen said.
The chairman also recognized the medical field as a local asset with significant potential.
“This area employs thousands of people, cycles hundreds of millions of dollars through our community and supports numerous charities and civic causes,” he said. “Economists continually point to health care as a significant source of jobs in the next decade. We must protect and enhance this sector of our local economy. We must help our physicians advertise their practices outside the region, create centers of excellence and establish a national reputation for both price and quality.”
Christiansen announced Dave Peterson, the county’s chief operating officer, will spearhead an effort to coordinate medical professionals and business leaders “to identify opportunities and chart a course to make Winnebago County not only a medical destination, but an attractor for health care-related manufacturing and businesses.
“Investment in science and technology pays off with good jobs,” he added. “We cannot afford to ignore any opportunity in this area.”
Downtown Rockford is also among the chairman’s top four priorities, and Christiansen made clear his belief there are too many outdated buildings that need to be razed to attract investment.
“Money is gathering on the sideline right now, ready to come in,” he indicated. “That’s why we must continue to invest in those things that will bring development and quality of life when the economy improves. It’s critical to the overall success of our region that downtown Rockford be revitalized. Right now, as it’s been said, downtown is not underdeveloped—it’s under-demolished.”
The remark was met with both laughter and applause.
“We must quickly outline and execute a plan that includes redevelopment and a whole lot of demolition of the obsolete and dilapidated buildings, most of which are not on the tax rolls anyway,” he noted. “The county has joined with Rock River Development Partnership. They are stakeholders and have a vested interest in downtown, and they are the right group to guide and spearhead this effort, especially if we are gathering the necessary financing in order to move quickly. Every funding tool and resource will be considered, including TIFs, landfill host fees, federal stimulus bonds, state grants, selling of assets, and the establishment of a Special Service Area.”
The Rock River Development Partnership is a nonprofit run by downtown business owners. The group is commissioning Live Work Learn Play, a Montreal-based consulting firm, to develop a strategic plan for downtown. So far, funding for the $200,000 plan has only come from public dollars, however.
A continued focus on rail remains among the chairman’s top initiatives in the coming year. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has earmarked $60 million for the return of Amtrak service.
“This will ultimately lead to commuter rail and more freight service to Rockford and Winnebago County,” Christiansen noted.
“I am pleased to announce that we are dedicating land west of the Justice Center for a memorial commemorating all the lives lost in the attack of September 2001,” Christiansen announced at the end of his 16-minute address.
The memorial, paid for through private fund-raising efforts of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 413, will also recognize local first-responders who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Memorial designers, The Larson & Darby Group, refused a request to provide a conceptual drawing to this publication. They advised they’d been told all media inquiries should instead be directed to the chairman’s office.
Asked what authority the chairman’s office has over the privately-funded project, Christiansen’s administrative assistant, Alanna Conard, indicated Larson & Darby’s referral to the chairman’s office was “purely a courtesy.” Reportedly, Christiansen is planning a media event regarding the memorial.
From the April 21-27, 2010 issue