Snark, fighting will not bring County budget solution

By John Guevara 
Contributor 

Simon Sinek is an exceptional speaker, famous for his books and TED talks on leadership and the workplace. In 2014, he gave a talk, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.” In that talk, he referenced Next Jump CEO Charlie Kim and Kim’s response to the Great Recession a few years ago.

Instead of layoffs, Kim chose to give himself a pay cut. Upper management took pay cuts. And they worked with their employees to make sure everybody still had a job through the end of the recession. Yes, it took pay cuts. Yes, it took taking unpaid days off. But everyone kept their job.

Winnebago County is facing a similar crisis. The most recent deficit projection is $6.9 million. The County Board is choosing to cut the Sheriff’s Department by $4.3 million.

The SAFE Committee, a group of area business owners and concerned citizens, ran an ad condemning the proposed cuts to the Sheriff’s department, and specifically identifying board members as either for or against public safety.

There have been plenty of editorials in response to the ad. The Register Star’s Chuck Sweeny thinks the sheriff should take a page from Sweeny’s crony, former Sheriff Myers, who made budget cuts “work” in the past.

Sweeny fails to mention three things. First is that Rockford continued a meteoric rise up the ‘most violent city’ rankings as a result of the cuts to former Sheriff Myers’ budget. Second, he omits Myers’ perpetual and vociferous requests for additional funds, citing a rising jail population and crime reports for the need. Third, Sweeny doesn’t tell you that previous county boards began a slow reversal of those cuts in the FY2013 budget that continued through FY2017.

The sheriff department’s budget is not what it was before the recession. But previous county boards did fight to put as much money as possible into public safety efforts. Ted Biondo does a good job explaining how the county board continued to put more money into public safety through the current budget year. What he and the SAFE critics fail to do is explain how their interpretation of the cuts is more valid than that of the chief public safety officer in Winnebago County.

The ad did fire up board members who just don’t know what else to do. Board member Eli Nicolosi says that the budget cut supporters are right to be angry even if it’s for the wrong reason. The ad wrongly criticizes the board members—but they don’t have an answer that doesn’t end up hurting public safety next year.

He says opponents of the cut are wrong but for the right reasons: they don’t want to deficit spend, but they also want to keep fighting for safer streets. “We’re holding out for a better solution.”

The only feasible alternative currently floated was by Operations Committee Chairman Gary Jury. Jury says a short-term combination of freezing or cutting wages and furloughs in the short term while working to find cost savings by increasing efficiencies in the long term could balance this budget and future budgets without layoffs.

For the long-term, if public safety is so important, and every option should be on the table, put a referendum on the ballot for the voters to decide on a small incremental sales tax. Require that the sales tax to sunset when the jail bonds are paid off without renewal.

Chairman Frank Haney respects the work done by previous county board members, and the former administration. They worked to create a budgeted “savings account” in the public safety sales tax funds in order to save for a day when the county faced deficits—while working to maintain the county’s fund balances.

The county labor budget has grown so big, the savings account is dry. The state of Illinois has structured local governments in such a way that if taxes aren’t increased, government will not function.

We are a community on the brink. There are short- and long-term solutions to the county budget that will not sacrifice crime fighting. It is the responsibility of our leaders to stop sniping at each other in print and on social media. It is the responsibility of labor leaders to join the administrators, elected officials and taxpayers to follow Charlie Kim’s example: “It’s better that we all should suffer a little, than any of us should suffer a lot.” R.

John Guevara is a former Winnebago County Board Member.

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