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Out Here: Penchant for delay is local, too

I put off unpleasant things – for instance, dental work that I likely need.

I’m sure you do the same. Our elected representatives are no different.

In Washington, we keep seeing our politicians kick the can down the road. The solutions are pretty obvious: We must cut popular programs such as Social Security, Medicare and defense. And if we want to keep these programs in some form, we’ll probably have to raise taxes.

Rhetoric aside, most of us like big government that we don’t have to pay for. Our elected representatives reflect that desire.

In Springfield, we see the same thing. Illinois has a $96 billion unfunded pension liability that grows by millions every day. But our state government keeps putting off solving this problem. Again, the solution is clear: Some mix of benefit cuts and increase in worker contributions is needed.

In this case, the state already has taken some action, increasing income tax rates. Nearly all of that revenue has gone toward covering pensions, effectively squeezing all other state services. But state leaders have much more to do.

This political penchant for delay is not just some far-away curse. Just go to the Old Lee County Courthouse.

Starting next year, the Lee County Board will see a $1 million loss in annual revenue because of an expected drop in landfill fees. Much of that income has been going into the county’s general fund, which is $8.3 million.

Board members know they will have to make up that shortfall some way, probably by slashing spending.

In summer 2011, the board majority voted to give $1,000-a-year annual raises to nonunion employees, although some argued for an immediate wage freeze. Members of the majority said they would begin a freeze in December 2012.

When that time came, however, the board followed the example of Washington and Springfield – delay a solution to another day.

The board majority last month supported a union agreement for employees of the county clerk’s and treasurer’s offices that included $1,000 raises in the first and third years of the contract and $750 in the second.

Just a couple of months before, the board had approved two new positions for the state’s attorney’s office.

So when are the spending cuts coming?

As with that dental work, probably not anytime soon.

Ears are ringing in Mount Carroll

Mount Carroll is a beautiful town – hilly and full of historic buildings. But it also has become a town with heated politics.

I’ve done a few stories in recent months about city issues. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Mount Carroll City Council meeting.

One council tradition is particularly endearing. At the meeting’s beginning, the mayor asks someone to pull a rope to ring an outside bell to let the town know the leaders are convening.

I’m told that the bell-ringing tradition goes back years – probably to the days when American downtowns were full of people, before the advent of TV.

After this week’s ringing, it quickly became clear that there is not a lot of love on the council.

When council members talked about the possibility of a forensic audit, City Clerk Julie Cuckler, who is in charge of city finances, accused Alderwoman Doris Bork of going around town saying the clerk was stealing money.

Bork said she had not. In 2011, though, she examined payroll records, finding instances where employees marked down more hours on their timesheets than the time clock showed.

I’ve seen what she’s talking about. The employees could have good reasons for the discrepancies. Rather than getting to the bottom of the issue, the city’s first reaction was defensive. Mayor Carl Bates told council members that they couldn’t view any records outside of his presence and that they must give him their reasons beforehand for seeking documents.

He acknowledged recently that he issued those rules in the heat of the moment. They no longer apply.

City Attorney Ron Coplan wrote the mayor a letter about a story in Lanark’s Prairie Advocate about the payroll dispute, chastising those who raised the issue publicly.

“Contacting the news media and giving statements and information to the news media is divisive to the workings and working relationships within the council, with the mayor, and with the employees,” Coplan wrote.

At the recent council meeting, Mount Carroll businessman Leonard Anderson said he was upset that a story appeared in Sauk Valley Media about the city’s loan agreement with a nonprofit group. Bork and Alderman Bob Sisler contended the deal involved a number of conflicts of interest.

“If you have a problem, fix it, but not in the newspaper,” Anderson told the council.

Here’s another idea: Fix the problems, yes. But don’t dwell, as Anderson and Coplan apparently do, on negative newspaper publicity.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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