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Local Editorials

County’s financial future takes ominous turn

The Lee County Board continues to approve deficit budgets, and board members continue to grant raises to employees. Board members have failed to deal with financial reality.

The Lee County Board’s first significant vote of its new term has set a pattern for several years to come.

That pattern is one of financial irresponsibility.

In recent years, the county has spent more money than it takes in. The county’s current budget has a general fund deficit of $876,000. Budget deficits have been covered partly by carryover funds from previous years. A big financial crutch, though, has been the county’s questionable practice of using money from its capital projects fund ($600,000 in the current budget) to cover the deficit in its general fund.

The capital projects fund is supposed to be for bricks-and-mortar projects. It gets its money from landfill fees paid by Republic Services, which runs the county landfill. However, the contract with Republic expires in 2014, and the county faces a loss of $1 million a year.

The responsible approach would be for the county to hold the line on spending. Last year, some board members, including then-Finance Committee Chairman Rick Ketchum, spoke in support of wage freezes when union contracts expired at the end of 2012.

Well, it’s the end of 2012, and wage freezes are nowhere to be seen.

On a 16-7 vote Tuesday, the board approved a 3-year contract with 10 employees of the county clerk’s and treasurer’s offices. Employees will get $1,000 raises the first year, $750 raises the second year, and $1,000 raises the third year.

New Board Chairman Rick Ketchum said he expects more wage increases in upcoming contracts with unions that represent employees of the sheriff’s and highway departments.

The county board’s habit has been to grant the same increases to its non-union employees as are received by its union workers.

Therefore, if you work for the county, you likely will receive more money in your paycheck sometime in the coming year.

If you are a Lee County taxpayer, you are correct to be alarmed about higher spending for salaries while the county’s financial future remains so uncertain, especially since salaries represent the lion’s share (60 percent) of total spending in the general fund.

At Tuesday’s meeting, county board members did not even know what the total financial impact of the salary increases would be on the county’s bottom line. That is worrisome.

While salary increases are a victory for members of the union negotiating team, the possible negative impact on future job security should give them pause, particularly after 2014 arrives.

Seven county board members voted against the first wave of salary increases: Dick Binder, Bernie Buckley, Vern Gottel, Tom Kitson, Steve Kitzman, Gerald Leffelman, and John Nicholson. They are to be congratulated.

The 16 who voted to increase county spending on salaries are Allyn Buhrow, David Chandler, Kasey Considine, Tim Deem, Bob Gibler, Rick Ketchum, Arlan McClain, Isaac Mercer, Wes Morrissey, Bill Palen, Marilyn Shippert, Ann Taylor, Judy Truckenbrod, Jim Wentling, Marvin Williams, and Greg Witzleb. Taxpayers need to keep an eye on this bunch.

By not insisting on wage freezes for at least one year, the Lee County Board has failed to deal with financial reality. The implications for the county’s financial future are ominous.

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