Will County fears impact of state’s fiscal woes

Will County fears impact of state’s fiscal woes

Susan DeMar LaffertyContact ReporterDaily Southtown 8/11/2016

Two state senators tried to paint a cautiously optimistic picture of the state of the state, but Will County officials were not all convinced that Illinois’ fiscal problems won’t become theirs, too.

State Sens. Michael Connelly, R-Naperville, and Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Plainfield, came to give the county’s legislative committee an update on what is happening in Springfield.

Both acknowledged that the state has $11 billion in unpaid bills and the current stopgap budget is not an ideal solution.

“We know we have to come back in January and make some big decisions,” Bertino-Tarrant told the committee.

Those decisions involve reforms to pensions and workers’ compensation laws, as well as a budget for the next six months.

If Illinois had “average economic growth” from 2002 to today, it would have had $19 billion in additional annual revenue, Connelly said.

The state has to produce a “more positive business climate” and grow more business in the private sector. One way to do that is by lowering high premiums for workers’ compensation, he said.

Connelly said Illinois has a lot of assets other states would like to have — fresh water, good health care, big cities and farms. It is centrally located to serve the North American marketplace, he said.

“This is more important than dwelling on the negative,” Connelly said.

Still, county officials expressed concerns that counties will have to bail out the state, and finance programs once funded by the state.

“We are battling poverty, mental health and substance abuse issues,” said committee member Bob Howard, D-Beecher.

Will County also bailed out its Health Department, which is owed money by the state.

Bertino-Tarrant said she has not been involved in any talks about diverting state responsibilities to the counties.

“We recognize what is our responsibility and we’re trying to fix it at our level,” she said.

Board member Steve Balich, R-Homer Glen, decried unfunded mandates.

“Every taxing body is broke, yet you’re making new laws that create more expenses for schools and counties,” he said. “State statute says you can’t give us unfunded mandates, but yet you do. When you decide to make a law, does someone evaluate the cost to local government?”

Connelly and Bertino-Tarrant said they do look at local impact and are trying to reduce or eliminate unfunded mandates.

After the senators left the meeting, however, the conversation continued.

Will County’s legislative lobbyist, Brett Hassert, told the committee that after the November election, “You will see some creative financing. Everything will be fair game.

“The state is in very bad shape. It’s going to take some pain to get out of this,” he said.

The county should “be prepared for anything,” said Hassert, a former state legislator. “Every fund is subject to being swept. There’s probably nothing you can do.”

Steve Rauter, director of the Western Will County Communication Center, which dispatches 911 calls for that area, said the state has not released $10 million to $13 million in 911 funds it has collected through the monthly 87-cent surcharge on every phone bill.

“We appear to be ripe for the picking,” he said, fearing the state will sweep those funds in January.

Illinois has swept up 911 funds every year since 2009 — a total of $51 million — of which Will County should have received 10 percent, Rauter said.

If funds are kept by the state and not distributed, it makes the local 911 centers ineligible for federal funds, Rauter said.

All this comes at a time when the state is requiring 911 dispatch centers to consolidate and to upgrade to new technology by 2020, “but we can’t get federal funds to pay for it,” he said.

Will County is consolidating four 911 dispatch units into one when it builds a new public safety center in Joliet, at a cost borne by the county and local entities.

slafferty@tribpub.com

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