County budget picture blurred by misunderstandings, misrepresentations

By John Guevara
Contributor

Let’s be clear: Had the Winnebago County Board raised property taxes every year from the 2011 budget until today, there would not be a budget deficit.

Republican county board members Frank Gambino, John F. Sweeney, and Kyle Logan, fought to rewrite the FY2011 budget without a tax increase. At the time, the general fund balance was $10.341 million dollars. When the county board passed the FY 2017 budget, the general fund balance was $13.033 million dollars.

Today, Winnebago County is facing a budget deficit of almost $8 million dollars. The proposed budget includes a $4.3 million dollar cut to the sheriff’s budget, cuts he argues will be devastating for public safety. There are a few things taxpayers need to know before the county board votes for the budget or for any possible property tax increase.

County revenues have increased AND decreased, so which is it?

Have you ever seen Return of the Jedi? If you have, you’ll remember when Luke Skywalker questions Obi Wan Kenobi’s apparent lie about Luke’s father. Obi Wan’s response was, “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

You may have heard county revenues have decreased by $8 million since 2008, and fund balance spending has increased $18 million dollars ($5 million in the health care fund and $13 million between the general fund and public safety sales tax fund).

This is where “the point of view” comes in. If we measure revenues from 2005 we find that both general fund and the public safety sales tax fund have INCREASED. If we measure fund balances from the FY2008 budget to the FY2017, we find that fund balance spending isn’t as steep as $18 million dollars.

County revenues increased steadily until the Great Recession. After the dramatic loss of revenue between 2009 and 2011, revenues have recovered and steadily increased.

Even so, the fund balances for the general fund have increased from $8.893 million dollars in FY2005 to $13.033 million dollars when the FY2017 budget was passed last September. The public safety sales tax fund balance has fallen from $19.166 million to $12.494 million over the same period.

This means that the county has only lost $2.5 million between 2005 and the passing of the 2017 budget, not $13 million.

So past boards did not spend like drunken sailors. Instead, they worked to shift public safety spending from property taxes to the sales tax in order to reduce the local property tax burden. The county’s credit rating is evidence of that work, having improved steadily over the past decade.

Who’s to blame?

The state of Illinois has created a system where government functions will inevitably fail without tax increases. Counties and cities with “home rule” suffer even more, because they can increase taxes at will without a referendum from the voters.

The latest state budget will take over $2 million dollars from Winnebago County coffers. This is the state’s way of hiking taxes even more and leaving local elected officials holding the bag.

County Board Chairman Frank Haney thinks that the tipping point has been reached to discuss both tax increases and reductions in health care costs. The health care costs have skyrocketed for the county while very little of those costs have been absorbed by employees.

The county chose to pass on an ICE detention center in the jail, which could have meant $3 million in incremental revenue, and potentially reduced the cuts in the sheriff’s department by 70 percent. Opponents to the center, including congressional candidate and lawyer Sara Dady, argued that an ICE center would result in decreased economic activity and less cooperation with law enforcement. And Sheriff Caruana himself said that the proposal did not meet his requirements.

And the MRO facility at the airport has only generated a quarter of the jobs projected by this stage in its development. 250 jobs are better than none, though it looks like county taxpayers may shoulder the whole burden for the project because there still isn’t a federal grant in the works to cover its $10 million obligations. And that hold up has delayed the state’s $15 million, leaving residents of Winnebago County left holding the tab.

What can we do?

The county board will not vote until the last meeting of the month, Sept. 28. Call your county board member. Tell them what you think.

Consider Gary Jury’s plan to cut paychecks across the board instead of laying people off.

Write letters to The Times and the Register Star, telling them what you think.

Check the county website for notices on when committees will be meeting and sign up to speak before those meetings. Get there early, and don’t be afraid to ask where the signup sheet is.

We have a republic if we can keep it. Government only happens when we don’t show up. This is our chance to be heard. Let’s leave no doubt where we stand. R.

John Guevara is a former Winnebago County Board Member.

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