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Budget status a polarizing subject in Lee County

Officials debate whether there's a surplus or deficit

Published: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Dec. 23, 2013 11:18 a.m. CDT

DIXON – Is Lee County suffering budget shortfalls? It depends on who you ask. 

Arlan McClain, R-Dixon, chairman of the County Board’s finance committee, points to a surplus, with all of the county funds combined. For fiscal year 2013, the county was $1.2 million in the black, he said. 

But County Board member Dick Binder, R-Compton, says he looks at the general fund, which pays for county operations such as the Sheriff’s Department. The county’s general fund, everyone agrees, is in the red. 

For years, the county has used money from the landfill to subsidize shortfalls in the general fund – usually $400,000 to $600,000 annually, but a projected $750,000 this next year. 

Under the county’s 5-year contract with the local landfill’s owner, Phoenix-based Republic Services, the county is guaranteed $1.8 million a year for 5 years from the company, no matter the volume of waste. 

With the end of the contract this month, the landfill company is expected to give just $800,000 a year, based on current waste levels.

Officials have been bracing for this reduction for years. 

In an editorial last month, Sauk Valley Media’s editorial board noted the budget deficit in the general fund. 

“If Lee County Board members remain satisfied with annual budget deficits,” the editorial said, “voters should keep that in mind at the polls next year.”

That editorial drew a rebuke from the members of the finance committee in a memo that was distributed at last Tuesday’s County Board meeting. It was written by McClain; he and four members signed it.

The total budget surplus for the last 5 years, the memo said, totaled $9.8 million. 

“I am surprised at whoever wrote the editorial in the Sauk Valley Media weekend edition that did not do their homework nor did they have the correct information on our county’s budget totals,” the memo said. 

The committee also said “it is true if the revenue from the landfill drops below $1 million, Lee County could have a budget deficit but this year is expected to show a surplus.”

Binder, however, said when he considers whether a budget is balanced, he looks at whether the general fund’s revenues exceed or equal its expenses. In his mind, he said, the county’s budget is unbalanced. 

He said the landfill revenue should be used for its original purpose – capital projects, which include buildings and computer systems.

McClain and County Board Chairman Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, predicted budget surpluses for the next 2 years. 

After that?

“I think we will be at break-even status in 2 years. If we don’t find more revenue, there will be no place to cut expenses except for laying off staff and closing a building,” Ketchum said. 

Ketchum also put out a memo to County Board members Tuesday, giving the history of the landfill fund. In 2005, landfill money was first used to supplement the county’s general fund.

“It was no coincidence that this was also the year the court’s addition was completed – resulting in higher utility and maintenance bills,” Ketchum wrote. 

As for the general fund deficits, Ketchum said, “Is it really prudent to cut staff and services so we can keep buildings open – just to say we have a ‘balanced budget’ with non-landfill revenues? Isn’t ‘landfill’ money taxpayer money?”

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