Guest Column: ‘Project Strange Duck’: Winnebago County’s latest gift to First Rockford Group
By Steve Schultz
Winnebago County Board member, District 3
Question: How do you get the Winnebago County Board to agree to give $150,000 to First Rockford Group (a private business) to renovate a crumbling parking lot, at, say — for illustration only — the old K’s Merchandise property at Mulford and East State Street?
1. Put it on the agenda of the Economic Development Committee, because it is not a legal project for Public Works, and the county can spend money any way they want under the label of economic development.
2. Have the heading on the county resolution read: “Resolution approving matching funds with the City of Rockford to provide necessary infrastructure improvements to bring 500 jobs to the County.” How can anyone argue with bringing 500 jobs to the county? And it is a matching grant with the city, which surely has thoroughly vetted this unusual expense using taxpayer funds for the benefit of a private business.
3. Give the project a creative and secretive name like, I don’t know, “Project Strange Duck.” No, while you would understandably think so, I did not make that up.
4. Leave important facts out. Like this property was previously a retail building (so likely will be replaced with a retailer with lower-paying jobs … but we do not know that for sure, because they did not tell us what “Project Strange Duck” is). And this property is around the corner from a large, contiguous section of thriving retail and commercial businesses on one of the major roadways in our county.
5. Instead, call the location “a blighted building.” This is sure to generate sympathy and support. But there are many locations ignored by both the city and county that make this spot look like a commercial gem.
6. Bring it in for approval at the last minute. This is an old and frequently used way to get controversial items through the board. Kudos to Kay Mullins, who insisted on a layover until Sept. 4, because it had not been reviewed and discussed by those board members not on the Economic Development Committee.
Both the City of Rockford and Winnebago County have roads they cannot afford to fix, a budget they cannot balance, and other businesses that do not have the insider status of First Rockford (and have nowhere near the same financial strength). Right now, the county is working through really hard choices regarding how to balance the 2014-2015 budget (which will be presented Sept. 4 and voted on Sept. 25). Valuable and necessary items will be reduced so the county can make ends meet.
That context is what makes this use of taxpayer dollars so inappropriate. We will see how the county board votes Sept. 4.
I said in my article regarding the tax abatement the county gave First Rockford on the Rockford Meijer supermarket outlots (“Guest Column: County would pay twice if it approves abatement for Meijer developments,” March 19-25, 2014, issue) that I do not blame Mr. Sunil Puri (First Rockford Group founder and president) for requesting taxpayer dollars for his projects. He is a shrewd and capable businessman, employing a highly successful mechanism to obtain public funding to advance his private business interests. It is up to the local elected officials to recognize that there are many other better uses for taxpayer funds.
Steve Schultz is a member of the Winnebago County Board, representing District 3 in Roscoe, Illinois.
From the Sept. 3-9, 2014, issue