A Conversation Overdue

Andrew Rand, Peoria County Board

We appreciate the significant fiscal challenges facing the State of Illinois. Local government leaders support a frank and honest approach to meeting these issues head on. For Illinois to be a vibrant and growing state, our representatives in Springfield must make tough but important decisions in the context of unresolved financial problems that threaten our long-term future. Good financial policy, smarter choices and political compromise will move our state forward, and we encourage Governor Rauner to lead us.

It was not long ago that Peoria County faced some very difficult issues because of undisciplined policies and spending. But in 2001, the Peoria County Board said "enough" and adopted smart, conservative policies that maintain our fund balances, support our bond ratings and guide our spending habits. For more than a decade, the County has authorized balanced budgets and funded important priorities, despite the 2008 recession and the lagging recovery, which has been the slowest in over 50 years.

During my six years on the County Board, balanced budgets have become more difficult each year, especially considering harsh reductions in the County's funding of purchased goods and services, capital projects, and personnel. In the final months of last year, the County Board wrestled with $3.5 million of potential red ink, using a two-year budget strategy to manage our way through structural spending problems. Not long after the ink had dried on our budget plans, our newly-elected Governor laid out plans of his own, and rightly so.

Governor Rauner recently proposed reductions to the County's share of state income tax and public aid funding—and we suspect more are to come. Other revenues are likely to be impacted as well. Under the proposed scenario, Peoria County could easily lose up to $2.8 million by June 30, 2016. In the coming weeks, Illinois counties may lose state revenue for grants, motor fuel taxes, probation officer salaries, infrastructure projects, education and more. Municipalities, townships, schools and park districts may also be asked to share state cuts in funding. It is the combined projected impact on all governments in our community that makes a more compelling story.

Every unit of government should operate within its means. Taking critical steps to bring state spending under control, reduce debt and produce balanced budgets is long overdue. Also overdue, however, is local governments' desire to work more cooperatively in delivering important services to our community. If most every unit of local government in Illinois faces declining revenues, should not all units of local government come together to discuss and define the magnitude of the problem? Perhaps then we can explore together more shared solutions that are in the best interests of the taxpayers we serve.

There is no better time than now to have a serious conversation among local units of government about the financial challenges we have (and expect to have) providing services to our shared citizens. In a state that has each property owner supporting three local units of government, government officials and employees have a duty to cultivate collaboration and lead by example. The Peoria County Board recently developed new tools, including key performance indicators and managerial dashboards, to more closely monitor spending and receipts. Reformatted committees, including our county-wide elected officials as members of the "super-committee," are cooperating more than ever. By working from a common toolkit and with timely metrics, the County's balanced-budget conversation is transparent, accurate and more readily communicated.

Within Peoria County's 625 square miles, government works to serve 188,400 residents through one county, 15 municipalities and 20 townships. I believe the impending financial impact facing all units of government should instigate more dialogue among these 36 local governments. Having frank and honest conversations of our own regarding local financial issues would be refreshing as well. We look forward to helping lead the way. iBi

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