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What is the future for county services?

With Lee County expecting landfill revenue to drop by as much as $1 million a year starting in 2014, taxpayers must wonder about the County Board's long-term budget plan. There is a plan, isn't there?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

Residents of Dixon and Lee County might understandably be on the edge of their seats awaiting the outcome of several unresolved mysteries.

What form of local government will Dixon choose?

How much, if anything, will the city recoup in its lawsuits against bankers and accountants over the $54 million Crundwell scandal?

Where will the Lee County Board get money to supplement its annual operating budget when its landfill income drops by as much as $1 million a year?

We might not know until the election of November 2014 whether the current commission style of city government will survive reform efforts.

And those lawsuits could drag on for years.

But come Jan. 1, the county’s landfill contract expires and that reliable annual revenue will take a hit.

That impending fiscal crunch has not, however, seemed to concern the County Board.

Based on preliminary discussions about the 2014 spending plan, it appears the county will again dip into its landfill revenue to fully fund the operations budget, for which spending has exceeded tax revenue for years. During the current budget year, about $600,000 from landfill income is helping to cover the county’s $8.3 million general fund.

Even though the county’s contract with the landfill owner, Republic Services, expires at the end of this year, there is no imminent danger that the county will be unable to fully fund all departments and services. In fact, the capital projects fund, where landfill revenue is deposited, should have a balance of about $4.5 million by the end of this year.

But that fund has been getting about $1.8 million a year from Republic for years – and the county has been using that capital expenses budget to support operations for years. What are the long-term consequences of that income dropping, perhaps by $1 million a year? What if that capital projects fund is needed for something like, ... oh, capital projects?

That impending revenue shortfall certainty hasn’t deterred the County Board in recent years from ignoring its own hiring freeze to add employees and disregarding its planned pay freeze to continue giving raises – the kinds of practices that would make a private business nervous.

And then there are actual projects for which capital funds are intended. Those include replacement of the county’s leaky, undersized 43-year-old jail, which Sheriff John Varga estimates could cost up to $20 million. Suddenly, a $4.5 million balance in the capital projects fund seems inadequate to prop up the operations budget for very long.

The County Board’s chairman, Rick Ketchum, has said he does not expect any spending cuts for 2014. And that means the capital projects fund will be drained just a little bit more.

In the coming weeks, as the board considers the 2014 budget, it would be a good time to clue in taxpayers as to what is the long-term plan to fund county government.

If the county continues to increase its spending, and it has no prospects for new revenue to replace what will be lost in the landfill contract, what is the plan? Is a drastic cut in services anticipated?

Even those of us who love a good mystery like to know, before too long, how it’s going to end – especially when there are prospects that it will end badly for all concerned.

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