County: Time to bring the host fee in-line with budget

By John Guevara 
Winnebago County Board, R-19 

Over the past five years, the host fee has been a hot topic for the County Board. Not only have we debated the merit of individual projects, we have discussed how the funds should be directed, the resolution regarding how the host fee should be used, and the existence of a discretionary fund.

At the last county board meeting, the Operations and Administrative Committee, under Committee Chairman Gary Jury, introduced a resolution eliminating discretionary funds from this year’s host fee. This requires any additional host fee fund requests that are made during the rest of the fiscal year to be presented to the board and voted up or down and eliminates a “chairman’s discretionary fund” going forward.

This step was important and groundbreaking but it didn’t go far enough. I introduced an amendment to the resolution – one that would clarify the purpose of the host fee and make it more transparent. The current resolution regarding the host fee directs that it be used for economic development, environmental education and job creation. The amendment tightened the purpose of the host fee to provide funds for economic development: it specified what economic development means and how the money should be spent.

The amendment would also require greater transparency by creating a separate budget code for each fund recipient and requiring budget amendments to manage it. Right now the host fee has one budget code. Each expenditure is included in the budget, but it’s difficult to track how much is spent and when. Separate budget codes would make searching for the information on our website much easier.

The prevailing question is, why direct how to spend the host fee at all? Aren’t we facing budget deficits? Why don’t we avoid tax increases and use the host fee for emergency circumstances? The answers are simple: the landfill won’t be around forever. At some point, the money will go away. Using the host fee to plug a deficit is like putting your finger in a hole in a dam. At some point, the whole thing will give.

The problems are two-fold: First, we have a budget deficit. It’s the county board’s job to address the reasons why. It’s county board’s job to make sure that every dollar the county spends is directed to the best purpose. This means cutting the waste first.

Second, the host fee isn’t guaranteed to be around forever. When the landfill is full, the money goes away. What then? It’s easy to use words like “only in an emergency,” or “we have to have a contingency plan.” I’m skeptical every time I hear them, because if we’ve learned anything from history, government rarely gives back what it’s taken for an emergency once it’s over.

The amendment was withdrawn and Chairman Christiansen referred it as a resolution to the Economic Development Committee. As yet, it is not on their agenda. Why?

The host fee should be used for economic development because it’s a temporary fund. Using it for economic development gives us the chance to grow our own economy to the point that we don’t need the host fee anymore. That’s the goal.

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