Thursday, November 16, 2006

DuPage County Board Budget Priorities - Smoke And Mirrors

[Cross-posted at]

Recently there has been discussion in local newspapers and blogs about DuPage non-profit organizations advocating a cigarette tax among other solutions to the county budget cuts and deficit. I understand why the non-profits are doing it - and I don't blame them. Faced with elimination, like the University of Illinois Extension in DuPage that provides necessary pesticide information as well as serves an integral part of the 4-H program that over 400 DuPage kids participate in, or the massive 60% cut to not-for-profit community service grants, or the cutting in half of Access DuPage funds providing critical health care to uninsured DuPage residents who can't get it elsewhere - faced with cuts like these, non-profits would be irresponsible not to advocate a preferred tax increase by the DuPage County Board they depend on for their funding.

But what is responsible for non-profits facing draconian cuts that will devastate members of the DuPage community they serve, is totally irresponsible for the all-Republican DuPage County Board, which got us into this fiscal mess, and which seeks an easy out through "sin taxes" and expanding budgets instead of better prioritizing budget spending. The County Board's penny-wise, pound-foolish effort doesn't pass even rudimentary scrutiny.

First, the cuts they're making to non-profit and social service groups do not even begin to substantially plug the holes in their half-billion dollar budget with a roughly $50 million shortfall over the next two years accord to today's Daily Herald.

Second, the cost of the cuts exceeds their savings. Here are two examples:

Access DuPage

Access DuPage is a partnership of DuPage area hospitals, physician and social service groups and county government started in 2001 that served 11,700 low-income, medically uninsured residents in DuPage County in its first three years. In 2004 hospitals and doctors donated over $12.7 million in care. Yes, that's right, DuPage County's $350,000 leverages over $12 million - but the county board plans to cut that in half to $175,000. With the number of uninsured people rising, it is likely we need more access to health care in DuPage, not less. Cut back on Access DuPage's low-cost care (including preventative care) and the low-income people Access DuPage serves will end up in local hospital emergency rooms for medical conditions that could have been treated much more cheaply earlier. The DuPage families, employers and others that depend on them will suffer too.

University of Illinois Extension

The University of Illinois Extension agricultural program, something some DuPage residents many not be aware of, is an incredible deal that more than pays for itself. Over 400 plus kids in 4-H require the Extension program for 4-H to exist - but even without 4-H programing, the extension is critical to DuPage - and a bargain at $100,000 a year.

The emerald ash borer, a beetle that kills ash trees, is one of the terrible pests that the U of I Extension in DuPage is mobilizing against to prevent local devastation. What kind of damage could this beetle, that has destroyed 20 million ash trees in the Midwest since 2002, do in DuPage? According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources a lot! Here's what it could do to Woodridge, a single relatively small part of DuPage,

"In 1996, Woodridge, IL (a 15 year Tree City USA community) received a grant for IDNR to conduct an inventory of their community forest. Based on the results of this inventory, this Illinois medium sized community (population 33,000) had a tree population of approx. 8,000 public trees. At the time of the tree inventory 25% of the public trees were ash. Therefore, if the Emerald Ash Borer were to infect all of the public-owned ash trees, Woodridge would loses [sic] 2000 trees. According to the survey the majority of the ash trees are now from 8- 18 inches with an average size of 12 inches. Using an estimated average for tree removal cost of $500 per tree to remove all ash trees, the potential cost for removing all ash trees in Woodridge would be: $1,000,000. Using the Northern Illinois tree replacement (purchase and planting) price of $400 per 3 inch diameter tree, it would cost an additional $800,000 to implement a tree for tree replacement policy. Therefore, EAB could cost Woodridge [an] estimated $1.8 million to remove and replace all public-owned ash trees should they become infected.
Suburbs and DuPage County Public Spaces were inventoried. According to 'Urban Forest Structure: The State of Chicago’s Urban Forest' by David J. Nowak, USDA Forest Service, in NE Illinois Cook and DuPage County suburbs there are 4,132,100 ash trees planted. If tree removal and replacement costs combined are $800 then the estimated cost to Illinois suburban communities would be: $3,305,680,000 or over $3 billion."

So, for DuPage County's $100,000 in funding of the Extension we get

- $100,000 in matching state funding

- $750,000 in services that includes
-> Horticultural industry support for local businesses and residents
-> after school and summer programs for at-risk youth; and
-> numerous education programs in nutrition and other areas for over 25,000 young people and adults.

- 4-H programming

- Protection against millions or billions of dollars of damage to DuPage ash trees

The DuPage County Board found room enough in the budget to increase their salaries this year. It's time they start really earning the money. They can start by noticing that you really don't save money by cutting relatively small programs that leverage tax dollars to provide many times their money's worth.

I'm not a smoker and am not an apologist for smoking - but given the Republican County Board's history of spending new found taxpayer money instead of controlling budgets, it seems unlikely that taxing the declining number of smokers is much of a solution. It's time to look outside of cutting the small, underfunded county social service programs and on to bigger issues in the budget. Until they do that, all the County Board is doing is using smoke and mirrors to avoid real spending problems. DuPage residents, and the non-profits that serve them, deserve better.


grand old partisan 10:46 AM  

Okay, Wurf – fair enough. I’m not a huge fan of sin taxes. Making public revenue increasingly dependent on the sale of a product you are simultaneously discouraging people for using is, in a word, dumb. They are also regressive, putting an increased burden on the typically lower income consumers of most ‘sin’ products.

But where is your alternative? What specific "bigger issues" do YOU think need to be re-evaluated?

You reference the “all-Republican” board, but fail to recognize that the majority of board members have never been opposed by a Democrat before. Where is the competing Democratic vision for the County? (Btw, if your gripe with the board is that they have mismanaged spending priorities and are trying to up sin taxes, why don't you just move to Democrat-controlled Cook County. They really know how to manage their budget!) 6:30 AM  

Hi Grand Old Partisan,

Thanks for the comment - and I think it's fair for you to ask. I was't ducking you with this delayed response - here is the answer in a nutshell as to what my alternative is (and to prove I'm not ducking I'll reference my past, public blog work).

Before I do let me say that while Democrats in DuPage did not run a full slate for the county board this time or last (when I ran) - the bottom line remains the same. There are obvious structural (and financial) disadvantages for Democrats currently to overcome (although I think we're making progress) - but where voters had an alternative they decided to vote for the board they have. We did make gains in percentages this time around, but we did not get anyone through. No excuses - the elections were held, we came up short - we're trying to do better down the road and the record of our policy proposals show that Democrats offer a significant, fiscally conservative alternative to DuPage residents that an all-Republican county board has failed to offer.

Now, the meat of your challenge. The short answer is that one of the bigger line items in the nebulous DuPage County budget is construction and particularly new road construction. I have an established public record saying that the level of new road construction is not sustainable and not an efficient use of taxpayer money. I also have noted that higher oil prices of late have exacerbated the situation. This alone counts for a lot of savings.

The DuPage Airport Authority and Tech Park have been a boondoggle from the beginning that have cost DuPage taxpayers in the hundreds of millions - money that for the most part is completely lost. Here is a somewhat recent summary of that situation involving the waste of over $100 million taxpayer dollars. That money is spent - but my argument would be

1. They should not get any more taxpayer money and

2. We should find ways for them to contribute to DuPage County's bottom line - after all we paid for them.

There are other areas, likely contracting, personnel picks and other areas that I have no doubt that a close look at the budget, which one watchdog group describes as less than transparent (I'll try to get the cite - can't find it now). In a similar vein County Board member Brien Sheahan of Elmhurst told the Tribune We should have a five-year plan that's published, transparent and inclusive of countywide officials and departments so everybody understands where we are and where we're going. I think that's a good idea - my question is why they don't already have it - and what they have to hide from DuPage taxpayers?

So, this is a bit rushed and not elegant - but I think my citations above all show a record of more than "smoke and mirrors" - it's an honest, constructive and fiscally prudent difference in approach and priorities. It's a voice that the DuPage County Board seems to utterly lack.

Making The Wheels Turn 1:38 PM  

Few comments, if you don't mind a third party stepping in....

1) The road construction is big dollars, but most of that cash (revenues) comes from specific targeted sources. You are either going to use that money for roads, or you're not going to be using it. You can't just shift that money from special funds (like County Highway, County Bridge, or Federal Matching Tax) into the other areas. Just does not fly legally.

The real issue is that the cutbacks are comming out of what is called the "General" (a/k/a "Corporate") property tax fund. The General fund also gets a lot of the fines and fee collections from the different offices, but not all of it (think legislation passed by the IL GA over the last few years which directs some fees and fines to go to specific purposes).

Simple facts are that if you want to change the money, you've either got to cutback (change) the way money is being spent within the General Fund by finding, better, more functional alternatives, pass a referendum to increase General Fund taxes (actually, increase the CPI so it's greater than the 5% tax cap limit), or come up with a new revenue source like increasing the tax on smokers (or some other entity).

In DuPage, as well as in Cook County, there are ways to save a whole lot of money and do things more efficently, but it won't happen simply because the political leadership in both places isn't ready for the disruption.

Just to throw one out to you, here's one area where there could be massive savings over the next several years, but it simply won't happen because there's no vision (in either Cook or DuPage). Personnel administration is poor (at best in DuPage County), but it's far worse than that in Cook County.

The digital tracking of employee information is literally back in the stone ages (the 1980's at best) for both places. There's all sorts of new Internet based software applications which have impacted in the marketplace since 2001/2002 (because the private sector demanded it), but governments are woefully inept in this particular area.

Now, you might say that this is a hard area to quantify costs, but people costs are any government's biggest expense, and most of the time, I've found that those records are all stuffed in a bank of file drawers/cabinets. And then somebody asks for a search of information, and it's a "All Hands" search trying to make sense out it this giant semi-organized mass of paper records.

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