Even with state budget, issues loom over local projects

ROCKFORD — Leaders in Springfield finally ended the state’s two-year budget impasse Thursday. But questions still linger as funds for local projects and spending were cut from the final bill.

Democratic leaders overrode Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a spending plan passed at the weekend. The General Assembly had been called into special session by the governor after a regular deadline to pass a budget had lapsed, sending the state into an unprecedented third year with no financial blueprint.

While the budget will assure more than $77 million worth of infrastructure repairs in Rockford is not stopped, other stateline projects will take a hit. One is the Rockford airport’s AAR Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility.

As The Times first reported in February, funding for the project was already under threat. When dollars for the project were aligned in 2014 and 2015 by airport director Mike Dunn, more than $25 million relied on state funds. Not only was $15 million promised by former Gov. Pat Quinn before he was defeated by Rauner in 2014, but $10 million in federal funds was pegged to the availability of state dollars for the project.

But that initial $15 million never materialized in any budget plan put forth over the last two years.

“I’m confident that the state money will come in when the resources are available,” State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, had told The Times in February. “The money will come in.”

Now that the state finally has a spending outline, the MRO isn’t included. That leaves a $25 million dollar funding gap to be paid for by Winnebago County taxpayers.

More than $17 million in loans were obtained by Dunn in what was supposed to be a short-term financing plan to cover funding gaps and complete the project. Another $8 million was secured from the Winnebago County Board in the form of bonds.

Repayments will now be covered by tax increases from the county and the airport authority. Lawmakers would have to approve a special appropriation outside the budget process to stem tax hikes for area residents.

• Another provision in the budget will see funds sent back to communities from Springfield slashed. The Local Government Distributive Fund, which redirects general funds back to cities and towns, will see a 10 percent hit in its payouts.

That means $1.5 million less for the City of Rockford alone. The city is facing a $5 million deficit for the current fiscal year.

Mayor Tom McNamara Thursday said he wasn’t sure where the city could recoup those dollars, but he shared his enthusiasm at seeing major construction projects on North Main Street and Harrison Avenue continue. Those projects rely on local, state and federal funds.

McNamara added that the budget passage allayed fears over the recently approved roadworks at Mercyhealth’s new Riverside Boulevard hospital.

Some lawmakers had sought a 25 percent cut to the local fund as recently as May, but those plans were shelved in the final spending package. R.

–Staff report

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