What a privilege it is to live in the United States of America. According to the U.K.-based Economist Intelligence Unit, there are only 20 full democracies in the world, and we are blessed to live in one of them. Our government works because we have citizens who are willing to speak out and participate. Or, as our distinguished former President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated, “A government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Government affects our lives every day, in so many ways. From the television we watch and the roads we drive, to the schools teaching our children and hospitals that cure our sick, we are all greatly influenced by the decisions they make. One of the many governmental layers that affect us each day is county government. I have had the privilege of leading the Tazewell County Board for the past eight years, and I would like to help explain what we do and why we do it well.
Origins & Authority
The county form of government can trace its origins back over 1,000 years to feudal France and England. According to John Wenum, author of The Essential Guide to County Government, medieval European countries were divided into smaller areas governed by the church and the landed nobility. As kings became more powerful, they appointed administrative officials to oversee the judicial, police, public works and military functions in these shires, or counties. They became the primary units of local government in the American colonies, established in the 17th century.
Fast forward to January 31, 1827, when Tazewell County was first organized. It was named for Littleton Waller Tazewell, a former governor and senator from Virginia. The county seat, now in Pekin, supports a population of approximately 137,000 residents with 16 cities and 19 townships. Tazewell County government plays a part in each city, township and unincorporated area, and in the lives of all its citizens.
County government has authority over a wide variety of areas, as mandated by the State of Illinois. In many regards, county government is a sub-unit of the state government—without the power. I cannot cover everything that county government does in a single article, but I would like to provide a high-level overview, and then focus on a few of our larger responsibilities.
Departments & Responsibilities
County government is composed of numerous elected officials, each having “internal control” over their respective offices. That means the county board sets the budget each year for each department, with their input. Beyond that, each elected official has complete control over the day-to-day operations and functions of their office. Tazewell County has an outstanding team of elected officials, which is why we are in great financial shape. From the treasurer who collects and invests the taxes, to the auditor who approves the bills, to the coroner who oversees deaths, to the state’s attorney who prosecutes crime… they are all conscious of their role as guardians of the taxpayer.
Some of our larger elected departments include the Sheriff, the Clerk and the Circuit Clerk. The Sheriff’s office is probably the most recognizable, with its officers patrolling our roads and overseeing jail operations. The Clerk runs our elections, grants marriage licenses, issues death certificates and administers payroll. And finally, the Circuit Clerk oversees the court system and makes sure it is running efficiently. And these offices do so much more—an entire article could be devoted to each of them.
Lastly, the County Board office oversees many different departments, in addition to creating the budget. Zoning, the Highway Department, Health Department, Assessments, Emergency Management and Finance are just a few of our daily responsibilities.
On the Horizon
Moving forward, our biggest challenges continue to be financial. Despite our healthy reserves, the State of Illinois has eliminated funding for many things they are responsible for—and in some cases, programs it has mandated. Sales taxes have also softened as we experience some economic distress related to layoffs at Caterpillar and the closing of the Mitsubishi plant in Normal.
Additionally, despite having some of the best county roads in central Illinois, the State continues to siphon off larger portions of the motor fuel tax, making it more difficult to maintain the current system. As revenues continue to stay flat or decline, the costs of asphalt, equipment and labor continue to rise, forcing us to prioritize and let some projects go.
So what does the future look like for Tazewell County? Despite the current economic meltdown the State of Illinois is experiencing, I believe our outlook remains strong. We currently have the lowest tax rate in the state, no debt and strong fund balances. Tazewell is also a PTELL (tax-capped) county, which severely restricts our ability to raise taxes. We are in this position because of the hard work of previous boards and our employees. Our goal is to carry on that tradition of judicious spending for only those areas we are mandated by law to carry out.
Beyond that, more automation and efficiency are on the horizon. Currently, the courts and law enforcement are where we see it the most. Entering information into the computer system once from the squad car reduces the possibility of errors from multiple entries (arrest, booking, courts, etc.). Greater use of online forms, access to information, and payments of fines and fees will also make things more convenient for the taxpayer. Intergovernmental agreements and cooperation will help us stretch scarce resources and increase efficiency.
I believe that the government closest to the people is the most efficient and accountable. That is why county government is as effective as it is today. I am thankful for the board, our elected officials and the employees of Tazewell County for the great job they do each day. We strive to do the most we can at the least cost to the taxpayer. My hope is that you feel confident we are achieving that goal. It sincerely is a privilege to serve all the residents of our county. iBi