Municipal budgets should balance services provided with taxpayers’ ability to pay

Winnebago County’s fiscal year budget, which began October 1, 2014, was approved at the county’s last meeting in September. The budget process, however, doesn’t end with budget approval; the process continues throughout the year.

The City of Rockford and the Rockford School District will complete their budget process by the end of the year. The county represents approximately 7.4% of property tax bills, while the city represents 22.0% and the school district is 51.6%.

As Chairman of the Finance Committee for the Rockford School District, Rock Valley College and Winnebago County boards during the past two decades, I’ve noticed a wide disparity in the financial perception between those in public service and those footing the bill.

The recurring plea from those developing the budget, or attempting to amend it, is that services to be provided are usually limited by the lack of appropriate funding (revenue), while the beleaguered taxpayers fume that excessive spending (expenditure) by the municipalities on unneeded services or facilities is the actual problem.

Elected officials, therefore, must not only seek a balance between revenue and expenditure, but should also maintain a balance between the services provided by the municipality and the needs of the community, within the financial constraints of that community’s ability to pay for those services.

In numerous cases, insufficient revenue is no excuse for many in public service. They simply refuse to accept the idea that adequate funding is not attainable; simply raise taxes, increase deficit spending, or borrow the needed funds.

Elected officials and administrators shoulder the blame if they fail to come up with the additional revenue to meet the goals of those in public service and are also criticized by many on the receiving end of the services provided by the community.

If the level of public service is more than taxpayers are willing or able to pay, should the only alternative be to limit the public’s own discretionary spending in favor of additional public service, especially if many taxpayers do not utilize the services provided?

Cost reductions or outright elimination of services are the only permanent solutions to balance expenditure with revenue throughout the year. Borrowing money or increasing deficit spending is nothing more than a temporary solution, which ultimately increases the financial impasse, as proven by Illinois finances countless times.

Some services provided by the county, such as healthcare, dental and vision care for Justice Center inmates are more comprehensive than that afforded many honest, hardworking taxpayers.

These unfunded regulations have been ordered by federal and/or state courts, with state legislative concurrence, mandating that these services be provided regardless of a community’s ability to pay.

If the jail population is reduced because of additional court services provided, and recidivism is reduced through alternative programs, then hard savings must result in reduced operation and maintenance costs, not just fewer inmates.

So, as the county budget is monitored throughout the year, taxpayers and service providers must realize that services will decline, as county departments reduce their budgets an additional 4.15% this fiscal year to maintain the balance, while continuing to hold the line on the tax-capped levy for the fourth time in the last five years.

In order to maintain the budget, effective October 14, 2014, the county court system is closing the Juvenile Day/Evening Reporting Center –which allowed a sentencing alternative for adolescents involved in serious delinquent behavior.

The residual Juvenile Center officers will be transferred to fill three of the four open Probation Officer positions in the Adult Probation Division, giving current Public Safety precedence over appropriations of dollars for programming.

Also, the Assessor’s office has recently had personnel leave for various reasons. So, if the attrition plan on hiring is enforced for 6 months, there is a distinct possibility that the revenue stream to all taxing bodies could be delayed.

Therefore, additional employees must be hired as a priority, which may affect the budget in other areas, unless revenue increases during the year.

Constituents should let their municipal representatives know what they are willing to pay for and what services they can do without; the public service providers will certainly do so.