By Michael Kleen
In a recent column in the Rockford Register Star, Chuck Sweeny asked the open-ended question of whether Rockford’s spending priorities are in order. In answering his own question, he criticized various government spending projects, including the much-celebrated (but seldom used) $8 million bus station on the city’s east side. He almost sounded like a conservative. His analysis, however, barely scratched the surface of the problem, and he ultimately failed to explain the alarming consequences of our government’s misplaced priorities.
Fundamentally, the question of Rockford’s spending priorities is a question about the purpose of local government. The purpose of local government, I believe, is to provide certain basic services. Included among those services are an impartial and efficient court system, as well as public infrastructure, sanitation and safety. Those are needs, and local government should devote most, if not all, of its time, talent and resources to addressing those needs. Everything else is a want that can be provided by government but is best filled by the private sector.
In the upside down world of irresponsible public policy, however, wants are given priority over needs, and as a result, government struggles to fulfill its basic obligations, and politicians incessantly complain that the government is underfunded.
It is not that Rockford is lacking in revenue, however. Residents pay as high as $6,000 a year in property taxes, or nearly five-and-a-half times the national average, and a local sales tax on top of that. One would think the city should have perfectly paved roads, exemplary public schools and safe neighborhoods. Why is that not the case? The answer is that a large percentage of those funds go to grow bureaucracy and toward politicians’ pet projects and not to where they are needed. Public safety, as well as other basic services, suffers as a result.
Irresponsible government spending threatens public safety by shifting tax dollars away from where they are needed most. This is best illustrated by the City of Rockford and the Rockford Park District’s bizarre quest to extend a government monopoly over the area’s sports and outdoor entertainment industry. Millions of dollars in public revenue are being spent on new sports facilities and bike paths. $7 million alone has been allocated to a riverwalk. How many police or emergency personnel could be hired with that $7 million? How many street lights could be installed? How many streets cleaned and repaired?
Meanwhile, many Rockford residents live in fear of burglaries and home invasions, and hard drugs are sold openly in some parts of the city. Just recently, a 26-year-old Rockford man was released from prison on parole for a home invasion only to attempt the same crime again, this time on the home of an elderly woman. Fortunately, her son was there to fight off the intruder. Fifty-seven-year-old Michael Studer, who was shot and killed while simply sitting in his car outside a gas station on Auburn Street, was not so lucky.
The first civil right of every American is to be free from crime, violence and disorder. Yet, the City of Rockford’s attitude toward public safety borders on neglect. It is an atmosphere of permissiveness that led to two unrelated fire bombings in one week, one on a Catholic school bus and another on a parked car on North Winnebago Street. Obviously, no city can prevent every crime, but one wonders about the brazenness of such attacks. It has become apparent to many delinquents that they can commit their crimes with impunity in the streets of Rockford.
It is a matter of priorities.
This issue is about more than whether to spend tens of millions of dollars on public projects of one kind or another, it is about a failure of public officials to recognize their proper role as stewards of the public purse and of the public good. With only so many resources to go around, priorities are everything. Yet, politicians seem more concerned with putting their name on a plaque on the wall than they do with the average citizen, who has to live with the consequences of their misplaced priorities.
Michael Kleen is a local author, historian, and owner of Black Oak Media. He holds a master’s degree in history and master’s degree in education. Read his previous columns online at makleen.com.
From the June 27-July 3, 2012, issue