Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mayors say proposed cuts could be dangerous

By Jamey Dunn

Neighborhoods across the state may be less safe if a budget idea being discussed by lawmakers is approved, local officials say.

Mayors and village presidents came to the Illinois Statehouse today to lobby against any potential cuts to the share of tax dollars the state gives to local governments, saying that cuts would result in layoffs of municipal employees — including police officers and fire fighters. The money in question comes from the Local Government Distributive Fund, which is fed by revenues from state sales and income taxes among other state taxes. In Fiscal Year 2010, the state filtered about $1.2 billion back to municipal governments through the fund.

“All they’re doing is passing along their problems to all of us that operate cities of various size and capacities. And these monies are generated by our folks that live there, work there and do everything else in our communities,” said John Spring, mayor of the western Illinois city of Quincy.

Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed delaying payments to local governments until lawmakers approve some form of borrowing to pay off the state’s backlog of overdue bills from vendors, schools and social services providers. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have called for a $300 million cut to the revenues the state shares with the municipalities. A spokesperson for Quinn said he would not support cuts to the fund. “Our strong preference is to restructure our debt. … What we want to do is to pay down our overdue bills now,” said Brie Callahan, a spokeswoman for Quinn. Callahan said that Quinn is weighing several plans to accomplish that, and suspending payments to local governments is one of them. She added that the state is currently three to four months behind on such payments.

Mayors said they have already cut waste and nonessential items, such as weekly grass trimming at local parks. They have also eliminated positions and laid off employees, including police officers. They said further cuts or delays could threaten public safety.

Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois, said firefighters’ responsibilities have grown as their numbers are being cut. “We’re not only putting out fires. Our members are responding to hazardous materials incidents. They’re doing technical rescues, and they’re providing emergency medical care for the sick and injured in our communities,” he said.“We’ve experienced increased response times. We’ve had to close stations. We’ve had to close fire companies, and we’re not getting to people who really need us in time.”

Ted Street, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, said the shrinking number of police officers throughout the state not only endangers citizens but makes the jobs of those remaining more treacherous. “Some three years ago, I represented 35,000 law enforcement officers in the state of Illinois. Today, I represent 33,000. In the city of Chicago alone, there’s 1,000 less patrolmen patrolling the streets of Chicago. In the state of Illinois, there’s 400 less state troopers patrolling the highways and county roads of this state.”

He added: “We’re burying more policeman every year. … We’re being asked to operate one-man cars in high-crime areas. We’re being tasked to do more with less, and we’re losing officers.”

Gerald Bennett, mayor of the northern Illinois city of Palos Hills, described Quinn’s plan as an attempt to “blackmail” mayors to get them to pressure their local legislators into borrowing. “It is not their money,” said Bennett. “It’s their budget. They need to balance that budget. And we’re not a vendor. We’re not a social program. We are the ones [who need] to receive 10 percent of that local income tax back to our local taxpayers.”

Kent Redfield an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the move is similar to state officials putting pressure on other groups, such as social service providers or university presidents, through cuts either proposed or real. Representative of those groups, in turn, lobby their lawmakers for policy changes that would end the cuts. “Sometimes it’s more subtle than others, but that’s what’s going on.”

He said since most lawmakers have local political and party ties, local officials are not used to being the group that is being leaned on, either for cuts or to accomplish policy goals. “They’re used to these things not even being on the table. … It puts them in a situation that they’re not used to because generally they have an awful lot of clout down here.”

However, Redfield said if lawmaker did cut the revenue the state shares with local government, they would be pushing their budget woes down the line. “It’s cost shifting. You’re either going to cut programs, or you’re going to raise taxes at the local level.”


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