Winnebago County is an excellent steward of taxpayer dollars

Last Sunday’s Rockford Register Star Opinion Section included a column written by recent county board appointee, David Boomer, describing his first experience/lesson in county government by impugning the financial integrity of Winnebago County officials.

Most Winnebago County officials and staff were disappointed, to say the least, to see the county’s financial judgement compared to the reckless spending of Springfield and Washington, D.C., based on a single vote restructuring a portion of the 1% Public Safety Sales Tax (PSST) to help fund Sheriff Caruana’s financial request to reduce crime.

The sheriff and his staff presented a detailed budget to administration in a 48 page document with financial justifications at a joint Finance and Public Safety committee meeting. The budget included needed personnel, equipment, and training certifications.

The PSST has never reached $30M or higher as stated in the column. The highest revenue generated by the PSST was $29.3M in 2007, and has remained between $27M to $27.9M over the past five years. So let’s begin with the correct numbers.

The current Justice Center’s debt service was $8.5M. Following the debt restructuring, $5.5M will be allocated to debt service for seven additional years, with the remaining $3M allocated annually to the sheriff to fight our high crime rate, which adversely affects planned area transformations and economic development.

Refinancing the debt will result in higher interest costs and the column suggested that the money would be better spent on additional police. The problem with Mr. Boomer’s calculation is that no additional revenue is available from the 1% PSST until 2024, nine years from now, without the debt restructuring or cutting alternative programs designed to prevent crime.

The debt restructuring will provide the Sheriff’s Department a minimum of $27M additional dollars during those nine years to fight the crime crisis we face today.

Winnebago County administration has been an excellent steward of the taxpayers’ dollars for years!

The total annual cost to provide county services has been reduced $24 million in real dollars since 2008 to just under $198 million in 2015. The county’s portion of the total property tax bill for Rockford residents has been reduced to only 7.24% in 2015.

The county has an Aa1 Moody’s rating, which is tied for the best financial rating of any taxing body in the area, while the state has the lowest credit rating in the United States and the Feds owe $18 trillion dollars, the debt having doubled in just the past 8 years – some comparison, Mr. Boomer!

In 2011, the county was the first municipality to decline the Consumer Price Index (CPI) tax levy, to which they are entitled under the Tax Cap statute. In order to maintain the cost of services, many personnel were placed on furloughs, others’ salaries were frozen and vacancies were left unfilled.

County board member John Sweeney noted that the board’s decision to forego the CPI levy saved taxpayers over $4M this year alone and will result in an accumulated property tax savings this year of $16,422,803 since fiscal year 2011.

The averted CPI tax levy would have been sufficient to fund two-thirds of the sheriff’s initial request without the debt restructure, but would have increased property taxes by the additional $4M.

The county also saved $8M during the construction of the Justice Center through budgeting, bidding and modification of specifications. The remaining bond principal of $147M would have resulted in a total debt service of $231.8M over 20 years.

But the entire $38M collected from the 1% PSST during construction was used to reduce the principal amount to $109M, decreasing the total debt service to $171.6M, a savings of $22M in interest.

Bonds were subsequently refinanced at lower rates; reducing interest by another $4M if repaid by 2024 and those are the bonds now being restructured, resulting in a net increase of $8M in interest from the original bonds.

Any additional money requested by the Sheriff or others in the future for public safety, must be based on increased revenue from future 1% sales taxes collected as the recession recedes.

Restructuring the Justice Center’s debt does not raise the 1% sales tax! It remains the same. The PSST was 1% before the restructuring vote, it will be 1% after the bonds are refinanced and the taxes passed onto our children, Mr. Boomer, will still be 1%, no more, no less, with hopefully, a safer community.