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Guest Column: County board bows down again
• Last-minute spending request for $600,000 continues a pattern of disregard for open govern-ment and public comment
By Steve Schultz
Winnebago County Board Member (R-3)
Editor’s note: When asked about this latest sleight of hand by the Winnebago County administration to cut the public outcry on big spending, former candidate for Winnebago County Board chairman Paul Gorski commented: “I don’t think this is county government at its worst, it’s just a very bad moment.
“The Winnebago County Board failed to properly review a $600,000 expense and denied the public the opportunity for input.
“A proper review by a board committee is not only good practice, but gives the public the opportunity to sit in on that meeting and hear the discussion, or read the meeting minutes prior to the final board vote. That never happened. The public was cut out of the discussion.
“As for feedback or push back from the administration, the tipping fees are not donations to the county. It is contractual obligation from the landfill to us, the taxpayers, through the county.
“But those tipping fees, in large amount, come from the taxpayers, as those fees are skimmed off the top of our garbage bills as haulers dump garbage in the landfill.
“This makes the tipping fee sort of a sales tax; we pay it through an indirect path via our garbage bills, but so do other taxpayers of other communities who have their garbage dumped here.
“The community would cry ‘foul’ if we tried to impose a new economic development sales tax in the county, but that’s essentially what we have now.
“We pay that economic development fee through our garbage bills to our haulers, from the haulers to the landfill, and the landfill back to the county,” concluded Gorski, and we all should take note of his and Schultz’s attempts to protect us. While Gorski is no longer on the board, Schultz remains as the only voice not run over by party politics and the corrupt “Good Ol’ Boys and Girls” network. Remember this at election time. Ask, “Who is making the money on this deal?” We need to clean house. — Frank Schier, editor and publisher
Monday, March 11, Winnebago County Board members received an e-mail notifying us that an additional item would be on the Thursday, March 14, county board agenda. There was an apology for the short notice on this item, with an explanation that it was necessary because of the critical nature of the item.
The county needed to approve the $400,000 purchase and $200,000 demolition cost for the Six Penny Inn, as the county’s share of a project that would ensure the receipt of a $2.7 million EDA (Economic Development Administration) federal grant for road improvements around the Rockford Airport. If the approval for this purchase and demolition did not proceed, then the grant would be lost. The owner of the Six Penny Inn wanted a quick sale to agree to the negotiated purchase price.
In discussions that followed during the few days leading up to the Thursday vote, the county board members responded to Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen’s (R) plea that we take this necessary step and use Host Fee (Landfill Tipping Fee) income to cover this expense. While some did not like the short notice, they accepted the chairman’s explanation of the situation. I had immediate reservations based on our history on the county board of rushed votes on significant items.
As background for this vote, committing $600,000 of county funds, county board members were given some of the documents that related to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Agency (EDA) federal grant. One of these showed that the $2.7 million grant was subject to the City of Rockford and the Greater Rockford Airport Authority coming up with $4,801,717, and the Illinois Department of Transportation coming up with $2,075,000, with no mention of Winnebago County as a partner in this project.
Another was a letter from the EDA explaining the importance of these entities complying with the terms and conditions of the award, or the grant would not be given (the EDA grant acceptance document was signed and dated in June/July 2012). Another was a letter from Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) confirming that the city was, in fact, committed to providing their share of the money ($2,000,000), dated Feb. 6, 2012.
At the joint Public Works and Operations Committee meeting last night (Thursday, March 14, at 5:15 p.m., before a 6 p.m. county board meeting), Director of Economic Development and Government Affairs Mike Dunn at the Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) explained that the chairman had generously offered to partner in this project, had always been a supporter of the airport, and that the county’s provision of this $600,000 was the deciding factor in whether the grant would be received and the project completed.
At the 5:35 p.m. meeting of the Finance Committee, I voted against the funding of this project and protested the short notice of the item and the commitment that the chairman made on behalf of the county without the authority to do so, putting the board in a difficult position (which has been a pattern).
When the item came before us for discussion at the full board meeting, I made the following statement:
“Any new or revised planned expenditure of $600,000 warrants the review of at least one board committee well in advance of the vote.
“The county board is the only entity that has the legal authority to make legislative and expenditure decisions on behalf of the county. When items are brought before this board that represent commitments that have already been made, with very limited time to review the item under consideration, with limited or no prior communication to county board members, and where significant county dollars are required to fund that item; then the governing power and authority of this board is effectively usurped.
“When the board relinquishes its responsibility of fiduciary review, it reinforces the likelihood that this will continue as a pattern.
“The item before us is an example of this pattern.
“In light of this, I will be voting against this request as a protest against this way of conducting county business.
“I am certain that this position will be aggressively contested and backfilled with reasons why we must accept this conduct. I respectfully and strongly disagree with that resolution of my concern.”
The votes were cast, and the motion failed to receive the necessary super majority vote for a budget amendment 13-4 (with “no” votes from Lynne Strathman (R-1), Dorothy Redd (D-18), Julio Salgado (D-12) and myself).
Kyle Logan (R-4) immediately said that he made a mistake and wanted to change his vote to a “no” vote (because only someone who has voted against a motion can bring it back for reconsideration — another vote on the motion) and asked for a 5-minute caucus. The chairman denied this request, but then granted Dave Tassoni’s (D-5) request for the 5-minute caucus.
After approximately 15 minutes in caucus, the board reconvened. Salgado said he wanted to request a reconsideration of the motion, and a vote to reconsider the motion passed 16-1 (with me being the only remaining “no” vote). The motion then passed (again, 16-1).
We have many pressing financial needs as a county. We are early in our fiscal year, our income is always back-end loaded (a large portion coming in at the end of the fiscal year and even into the following fiscal year), and we are already adding back financial commitments that were cut during the budget process because of our income projection when the budget was developed. Our property values dropped again this year, which means our tax rate will increase again just to keep the same dollar amount coming in to pay county expenses.
This $600,000 expense from a discretionary fund (Host Fee Fund) was actually unnecessary, because we were never a part of the original EDA grant application, and the funds for this project were already committed (from the City of Rockford, the Rockford Airport and IDOT). The chairman decided he wanted a piece of this project without getting board input (again). The board listened to his explanation of why we had to take this short notice action and voted for the project. The original vote that failed was just viewed as a temporary setback that a caucus arm-twisting session could resolve (and it did).
To add insult to injury, another $100,000 was added to this short-notice budget amendment for the demolition of homes that the Winnebago County Health Department has identified as needing to be demolished. The time needed to properly review this issue was not provided. That is why Redd objected in the original vote (she could not open the e-mail attachment showing which homes would be demolished with this money).
I am not surprised by what happened March 15, because it follows a familiar pattern. But I am again deeply disappointed by how our county government functions. Whom do you blame? The chairman, the board and the citizens of this county. We are all complicit, because we accept this type of conduct.
I wonder how many of my fellow board members will appear on my primary opponent’s brochure a few months from now after this article? It was three last time (all fellow Republicans). Next time, he or she may need a bigger brochure.
From the March 20-26, 2013, issue