By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney addressed several issues Wednesday during his second State of the County address at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center.
Haney, who won the seat in 2016, began his talk by lauding local job efforts, noting that 1,000 positions were filled at the Chicago Rockford International Airport in the last 12 months and that the region is still a hotbed of industry.
“You want to live in a community where manufacturing jobs have grown by 28.8 percent with 7,200 jobs from January 2010 to December of 2017,” he said. “We don’t talk about this stuff enough.”
The job market is just one highlight that makes Winnebago County a desirable place to live, Haney said. Tourism laying a foundation, too. Haney said the region’s tourism has grown by 39 percent in the last nine years.
“That’s more than all major metro counties in Illinois, except one,” Haney said. “Cook County has grown by 40 percent.”
What those percentages mean in terms of dollars spent by visitors is impressive, Haney said. In 2016, Winnebago County generated $353 million in tourism. Last year’s figure is expected to be even higher.
“This supported 2,882 jobs with associated income of $86 million and generated $25.3 million in taxes,” Haney said.
And some of those workers also own homes, which have been overtaxed for decades. And as droves of Illinois continue to flee the state, Winnebago County is recovering from the Great Recession and real estate values are on the rise.
Property values saw increases of 1.29 percent in 2016, 2.23 percent in 2017 and what Haney says could be a 3.25-percent increase in 2018.
That trend won’t continue without challenges though. There’s a balanced budget now, but it came with some turbulence in the sheriff’s office. And when Haney took office, the county was at the tail end of a spending scandal that landed the former purchasing director in federal prison. While hiccups in Sheriff Gary Caruana’s office have been quelled for now, there are still things like the demolition of the Public Safety Building to grapple with. There will also be four union contracts coming due.
And like the City of Rockford, Winnebago County has some gaps it must fill. Like Rockford’s looming utility tax, Haney said the county may need to increase the public safety tax. A quarter-percent tax hike would generate $6.5 million, while a half would pull in approximately $13 million. Both measures require a referendum.
Haney said future plans will focus on three areas: living within the county’s means, reforming government and positioning for future growth. The first step is an obvious one. In the last 13 years, the county has spent $18 million out of reserves and is expected to spend more in 2018 than was projected. But there are costs the county must incur. Those are public safety, infrastructure what goes into keeping the lights on. That leaves a basic, day-to-day question.
“How do we deliver the best services at the lowest costs possible to a taxing body that’s overtaxed to a citizenry that’s overtaxed,” Haney said.
Winnebago County’s overall budget is $187 million. R.