Illustration by Nathan Klaus
Illustration by Nathan Klaus

In a recent interview, Rock Island County Board Chair Ken “Moose” Maranda trotted out an old saying: “County government is only as good as the taxpayers want it to be.” He continued: “And that’s because of statute. Everything has to go to the public.”

Somewhat charmingly, Maranda actually says “statue” when he means “statute,” but his meaning is still clear: Because Rock Island County is not a home-rule government, it’s constricted by state law in ways many municipalities are not. So if it wants property-tax revenue beyond state caps, it has to get approval from voters via referendum.

Much less charmingly, the county-board chair appears to be laying the blame for the county’s financial situation at the feet of voters, who have in recent years defeated several ballot initiatives that would have resulted in increased property-tax burdens.

So the county’s budget situation has deteriorated from a $3-million surplus in Fiscal Year 2004 to a $3.2-million deficit in 2014, according to county audits. County facilities are in urgent need of repair, renovation, or replacement – with an estimated price tag of $15 million beyond a new courthouse.

But voters don’t bear blame here; they’re merely reacting rationally to what they see. It’s not that Rock Island County government is in dire financial straits because voters want it to be. Instead, citizens have been unwilling to reward an ineffective and dysfunctional county board by approving tax hikes.

I think Maranda knows this, and in our discussion last month he described himself as a bridge from the old way of doing things in Rock Island County to what is looking like the new way. “I hope that I was the right person to put in the chair to see that this transition that we’re going through keeps moving forward,” he said. “I hope somebody picks up ... where I leave off.”

Change was already happening before Maranda was elected county-board chair in December 2014. In August of that year, the board voted to hire an administrator – a move that coincided with efforts to push out Chair Phil Banaszek (who ended up retiring in September 2014).

But Maranda’s record on “this transition” is strong – if not likely popular.

• The county hired Dave Ross as administrator a year ago, meaning that the county’s staff, for the first time, is being overseen by a professional rather than a body of elected officials.

• In the fall, the board voted to increase the tax levies for three uncapped funds that pay for non-discretionary expenses. Two of those funds – for employee retirement and Social Security – had been draining the county’s general fund because not enough money was being collected to cover required expenditures. In all three cases, the levies were increased to make the funds sustainable in the long run and to conform with best financial practices.

• The county board last month voted to move forward with a new courthouse facility, at a cost of up to $28 million. The board’s approach to the longstanding problem of a dilapidated courthouse – sidestepping voter approval through the county’s Public Building Commission – remains problematic. Yet this had been an issue the board kicked down the road for years.

• And on March 22, the board is poised to vote on an “omnibus” reform package. One component – reducing the size of the county board from 25 members to 15 – is largely a symbolic gesture, because a future board would have to make that a reality following the 2020 census. Another element – eliminating health-care and pension benefits for county-board members – is under legal review and might not be possible to implement until each board position’s next term. But streamlining the current committee structure from 10 standing and special committees to four standing committees can be done immediately, and the package also includes a shift to a five-year budget and capital-improvement plan with a goal of building a consistent general-fund balance.

Two of these items involve higher taxes without voter approval, yet they still represent decisive action for a body that for too long has deferred hard choices and just thrown up its hands when voters said “no” to higher taxes.

And if the board moves forward on the reform package, it will represent some personal sacrifice on the part of members now participating in the county’s health-insurance and pension programs.

Yet even if the reform package passes, the truly difficult decisions lie ahead. With Ross pledging not to allow a deficit budget for the fiscal year that begins in December, the county board will likely be forced to implement “mass layoffs” or find a substantial source of new revenue.

So in November, voters will probably be faced with a ballot question seeking approval for either a sales- or property-tax increase for county government. But only a fool would bet on that measure’s passage, which would mean staff cuts to reach a balanced budget.

Yet that sort of budget-cutting is, in the long run, the best way to convince voters that the county board is serious about changing the way it does business. It can prove itself to the point that the public will eventually assent to tax increases to address Rock Island County’s financial situation.

“It’s just ... building up confidence,” Maranda said of the reform package. “That is the whole key of what we’re trying to do. ... What we’re working toward is best practice. ... We are taking responsibility seriously, and we’re moving forward.”

Noses In, Fingers Out

The uphill battle the board faces can be illustrated by ballot measures from recent years.

• In November 2014, a referendum to increase property taxes to support the county’s Hope Creek nursing home narrowly failed despite a strong public-relations push.

• In April 2013, a referendum to finance new or renovated courthouse and county-administration facilities was roundly defeated – despite the fact that the ballot question was worded as innocuously as possible to disguise its purpose and property-tax implications.

• And in November 2012, an advisory referendum to downsize the county board from 25 members to 15 passed by nearly a two-to-one margin – indicating a clear desire for change in governance.

At core, the county has been plagued by twin problems: one-party rule and the absence of professional administration – leading to conflict, shortsighted financial management, and an unwillingness or inability to tackle pressing needs. As the Quad-City Times succinctly summarized in a May 2014 editorial: “Rock Island County is declining under a board incapable of professional management and consumed by compensation disputes easily managed by other local governments. The county’s workforce, courthouse, and nursing-home management are creating scandals where none existed. Unfortunately, these problems are deeper than voters can fix.”

The county board is taking baby steps toward better government – although Maranda is probably not the right person to tell the tale. With a straight face, he asserted that the problems the county faces now are largely the result of the county board keeping a lid on taxes. “These predecessors before, and I was one of them, had it in their mentality to keep taxes down and everything else,” he said. “Maintenance went to hell in a hand basket.”

In that statement, he’s ignoring a lot – what the Quad-City Times in an editorial last month referred to as the “farcical mess that is Rock Island County Board.” There’s still the bitter taste of the contentious tenure of former County Board Chair Banaszek.

And Maranda is unapologetic about using the Public Building Commission to build new court facilities without voter approval: “It’s best practice that this moves forward. ... It needed to be done without any more delay.” That’s arguably true, yet he also claimed – wrongly – that “it’s not pushing anything down the voter’s throat.”

But if Maranda is not the most eloquent spokesperson, he has been an agent of change. While there are still some legal questions about the reform package, “I’m going to see that it’s moved” on March 22, he pledged. “I’m positive we’ve got the votes.”

His commitment to reform can also be seen in his willingness to support the omnibus package despite believing that a 25-member board is more representative than one with only 15 members. Voters supported that change by referendum, he said, so he will, too.

And he’s certainly gracious, saying that new blood on the county board has been largely responsible for the nascent changes: “I thank the people of Rock Island County for giving me these young people.”

“Young” is a relative term with the county board, but Maranda listed a handful (all Democrats, incidentally): Mia Mayberry, Scott Terry, Kimberly Callaway Thompson, Steve Doye, Kai Swanson, and Vice Chair Nick Camlin.

Camlin was a key figure in getting the reform package rolling, and Swanson – who was appointed to the board last year – has run with it. (Camlin declined an interview request, saying via e-mail that “I just want the record to speak for itself, and I have no other remarks to make other than it makes me proud to have made a contribution.”)

Swanson was not as unequivocal as Maranda about the reform package’s prospects for passage, noting that it was removed from consideration in February so it could be reviewed by the state’s attorney: “If you look at the history of the board, delay has been a tactic going back at least a decade. ... When the votes need to be taken to get something done, nothing really happens.”

But he still said he’s confident: “I think we have a majority ready to go for the omnibus package,” he said last month. “But I’ve learned, too, that you take nothing, no matter how logical, for granted.”

None of this would have happened, Swanson stressed, without Maranda’s leadership. He called the chair a “selfless and over-the-horizon thinker. ... Being in that position is immediately seductive to defend the status quo. He has been open from the moment I met him to saying, ‘The day of the old guard is done.’”

With the hiring of Ross and a task force led by Camlin exploring options for better governance – leading to the proposed reform package – Swanson said Rock Island County government last year began a new management paradigm. “We’re going away from an older model in which those 25 members were really responsible for a lot of supervisory tasks. And the stories are legion of county-board members picking up a phone and calling a staff member down at the courthouse to ‘git ’er done.’ ...

“A board is meant to be about governance at higher altitude,” he said, citing the oversight maxim “Noses in, fingers out.”

Ultimately, he said, the reform package and other changes are meant to address several core principles: “Ethics. Sound stewardship and prudence in budgeting. Getting away from the perception of corruption, nepotism, so on and so forth.”

Those perceptions of the board acting out of self-interest, he said, are at the heart of removing health-insurance and pension benefits for county-board members. They’re relatively minor expenses for the county, but they’re important to voters.

“Many people are frustrated that seven or so members of the board are receiving county-subsidized health insurance for jobs that are really only two or three hours a week at most,” Swanson said, and that roughly half of the board is participating in the county pension plan. “Those just touched nerves that have been made raw by people talking about this ad nauseam and not really ever acting on it.”

Streamlining the committee structure, he said, acknowledges the increasing professional leadership of county government – including the hiring of a county administrator and a human-resources director.

Swanson admitted that the reform package is not an end in itself but represents “incrementalism toward the greater goal.”

The package’s downsizing provision is symbolic, he said, subject to board action following the next census.

When I asked about making county-board elections nonpartisan, he said, “I really didn’t give it serious thought. ... I didn’t think to put that on the table ... because at the end of the day I’m a pragmatist. I wanted to see how broad of a stride we could take in terms of a step forward. And I realized that there were just some third rails. Would that be a conversation down the road? Absolutely. But right now ... there are seven members of the Republican party [on the board], and I wanted all seven of those votes. And I think that if we proposed that now, we might diminish our support.” Republicans, he said, are trying to build a county organization, and nonpartisan elections would hamper that effort. But many Rock Island County Democrats would also oppose nonpartisan elections, he added, largely because of the party’s dominance of the county.

Swanson also said that it might be a good idea to eliminate committees altogether, but “this was sort of a good interval step.”

And he said that funding a new annex for court functions through the Public Building Commission was not the optimal approach, but the project couldn’t wait because of the state of the courthouse: “In an ideal world, it would be done via a referendum.”

But the board and county government are making progress, he said. Although Ross has been on the job less than a year, Swanson said, he’s showing promise: “He still has a long ways to go in terms of proving himself, but the early indications are that it’s having the desired effect. And that is cutting down on some of the ... less-than-desirable accounting practices that have been the hallmark of Rock Island County for more than a decade.”

“We Can’t Pay for Things as It Stands Today”

For his part, Ross is diplomatic about the situation he came into. In an interview last week, he said: “Take any major corporation that’s operated with only a board of directors and had never hired a CEO before, and it stands to reason it’s possible that it might not be running as smoothly as it otherwise could have been.”

When he gets into particulars, you begin to see the massive tasks ahead.

“There is a long list of things that need addressing from an administrative standpoint,” he said, noting budgeting practices, outdated job descriptions, employees without annual evaluations, communication among staff and board members, creating a uniform process for addressing worker’s comp claims ... . “We’ve implemented a lot of them, and certainly there’s a lot of work still to do.”

For example, he said, county-board members in the past would receive “more of a data dump ... than an explanation of what everything meant and the impacts ... .” Now, at least a few days prior to meetings, packets include pros and cons of various proposals and the potential repercussions of board votes.

County financial practices have been improved, but serious budget challenges loom. Most people don’t understand how much the county has already tightened its belt, he said.

“We’re already at minimum staffing,” Ross said, and he expects in the coming weeks to recommend the elimination of county positions to save more than $1 million over five years. (The county’s current general-fund budget is a little more than $28 million.)

The county is also looking at new revenue sources, such as Web-site advertising. It has already signed a contract to get $35,000 in annual revenue by simply “doing our normal [banking] business,” Ross said, and it’s also generating money through office-space rental.

Furthermore, some departments aren’t spending their full authorizations – for example by holding positions open. “We’re talking tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in offices or departments,” he said. “We’re looking at all options. We’re doing what we can. We’re cutting where we can.”

It has helped that county income-tax, sales-tax, and recorder-fee receipts have been higher than planned – indications of an improving economy.

Yet even with the courthouse out of the equation, Ross estimates the county has $15 million in deferred-maintenance needs and no money to address them.

“Until there’s a comprehensive look at the future ... , there’s really no way to make really sound decisions based on anything more than the here and now,” he said. “All of a sudden you find yourself five years into the future, and you go, ‘We’re broke. How’d that happen?’ And you’re scrambling to make massive adjustments when you could have probably made minor adjustments over the course of that time and been in a better financial situation.”

Although Rock Island County’s population has been slightly decreasing since the late 1980s, county-government spending has grown substantially over the past decade-plus – from expenditures of nearly $46 million in Fiscal Year 2004 to a budget of more than $81 million in Fiscal Year 2016, an average increase of more than 6 percent a year.

The biggest change in spending has been in social services – from $14.8 million in 2004 to $27.7 million in 2014 – while transportation-and-public-works spending nearly quadrupled over that same period. “General government” expenditures grew from $9 million in 2004 to $15 million in 2014 – more than 6 percent per year on average.

Yet since 2004, county property taxes for the general fund grew roughly 1 percent a year – from $5.32 million to an expected $5.99 million in the current fiscal year.

So Ross this spring will present the county board with several five-year budget plans. One will be the unsustainable status quo: “Here’s where we’re going to be five years from now. I preliminary estimate about $20 million in the hole.”

This will primarily be an illustration of the problems the county faces rather than a realistic option: “I won’t present a deficit budget next year. So it’s going to be very challenging, because we can’t pay for things as it stands today. We’re cutting where we can, we’re looking at these other revenue sources, we’re working on liability and risk management, but we just can’t do it. Had this been done 15 years ago, we probably wouldn’t be in this situation.”

The main problem, Ross said, is insufficient revenue. “We have the lowest sales tax – the county portion – in the state of Illinois,” he said. And the county’s general-fund levy – which pays for things such as public safety – has been at the same rate since 1983.

While sales and property taxes typically grow over time without the rates being raised, he conceded, they haven’t kept up with costs, and the hit that home values have taken since 2008 has hurt the county.

A second option – the first realistic one – will be a balanced budget without new revenue. “The capital projects won’t be in there, except for certain ones that have their own funding that don’t affect the general fund” Ross said. He later wrote that beyond the layoffs he’s recommending for implementation in the current fiscal year, this budget option would include “mass layoffs in the area of public safety (which is where most of the employees are at – even though we are at minimum staffing).”

The other options will entail cuts and the in-progress new-revenue sources, along with a new tax hike – a half-cent increase in the county sales tax or an increase in the property-tax rate.

“Either one of those is going to be entirely dependent upon a referendum in November,” he said. “Obviously, my hope is that once they look at what we’ve done over the past year, enough people ... will agree that one of those options would work.”

But even if the county board approves its reform package later this month, there’s little chance that voters will support a tax hike; it’s simply too early for them to have confidence that the Rock Island County Board will stay on the right track.

Early signs are positive, but – to convince taxpayers over the long haul – Maranda and his successor(s) will need to follow through on his promise that a county administrator, the resolution of the courthouse issue, the reform package, and other improvements aren’t the end. He said those changes are “absolutely” a good start, “and we’re going to make more.”

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