Subsidies work both ways

The Sterling school district has every right to leave the Bi-County Special Education Cooperative, which combines resources among area districts to provide services for special-needs students.

Sterling, which accounts for one-third of the students in the cooperative, says it can save $160,000 a year by handling the function itself.

In essence, Sterling has been subsidizing the other districts through the cooperative, which serves districts in Whiteside and Carroll counties. So it's easy to see why the district has decided to withdraw from the cooperative: It wants to save taxpayers' money – a laudable goal.

Still, the Sterling district's decision somehow feels unneighborly. Shouldn't we all be in this together – especially when it comes to special-needs students?

The bigger question: Will the total cost of special-needs services rise in the two counties after Sterling separates? If the answer is yes, then the area as a whole suffers, while one part will benefit.

Sterling should keep in mind that while it subsidizes the other districts through the cooperative, it works both ways.

All of these communities are subsidizing Sterling economically. After all, Sterling is the economic hub of the area, thanks to all of the surrounding towns.

Last year, the 1 percent municipal sales tax brought in $3.5 million to the city of Sterling's coffers. That figures out to $225 per Sterling resident.

All of the other towns lag far behind Sterling in sales tax revenue – Rock Falls ($114 per person), Morrison ($102), Mount Carroll ($122) and Prophetstown ($73).

Are residents of those towns that much more conservative with their spending? Of course not. They're going to towns with more retail, and Sterling is the best place for shopping in the Sauk Valley.

If government entities broke every time economic self-interest called, the result would be chaotic. In such a scenario, rich Connecticut would want to break from a union in which it ends up subsidizing poor states such as Mississippi. And the retail-rich east side of Sterling would seek to break off from the lower-income west side.

Fortunately, that's not the way the world works.

So is it a bad thing that Sterling effectively subsidizes other towns through the special-needs cooperative? It depends on how you look at it.

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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