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Larry Lough

Public money a big deal even in small towns

Coming close counts, so they say, only in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Almost. Not quite. Just about. Very nearly.

Those assessments are relative, of course.

We might reasonably disagree on just how close it has to be before it can be called “close.”

But by our definition, $14 million is nowhere near close.

SOME READERS might have seen a Chicago television station’s 3-minute report last week on the aftermath of the Rita Crundwell affair.

A TV crew and the station’s investigative reporter actually came out to Dixon – referred to at various times as a “small town” and “tiny Dixon” – to do some interviews.

The TV report included – with our permission – some video shot by Sauk Valley Media.

Although the report was loosely labeled an “investigation,” you would have learned nothing that this newspaper hadn’t already reported months ago.

Because 3 minutes is a lot of TV news time, we should be flattered.

But that’s what a $54 million scandal will buy you.

ANYWAY, THE FOCUS of the report was the recovery of stolen funds through the sale of Ms. Crundwell’s assets and the lawsuit against the auditors and a bank that were principal players in the dramatic disappearance of Dixon’s money.

The report started with this startling pronouncement by a co-anchor of the newscast:

“They’ve actually gotten all of that money back.”

Well, not quite, as the reporter explained later.

“Dixon has now recovered almost all of the money,” he said.

Hmmm. Well ...

“They’re getting almost all of that money back,” observed a spokesman for the Better Government Association, who was interviewed for the report. “Not quite all of it, but almost all of it. ... That’s just crazy.”

Well, almost crazy.

FIGURES USED IN the report are those we’ve heard before.

More than $53 million stolen; about $40 million recovered, after legal fees and assorted costs of asset liquidation.

Does that represent “almost” all of the missing money?

We would say that ... oh, 90 percent or more would be “almost.”

Get any less than that, and you might have done quite well – but not quite “almost all of the money.”

In fact, the city lassoed just short of 75 percent of the nearly $54 million that had galloped off into the sunset with the then-city comptroller.

If your boss tells you that your salary this year will be “almost” what you made last year, you’re not expecting a 25 percent pay cut.

But we’re talking about the math of TV journalists, and they say when it comes to numbers, there are three kinds of journalists: Those who can do math, and those who can’t.

If you’re not sure what that means, just ask Dixon Mayor Jim Burke.

He gets it.

MAYOR BURKE WAS, in fact, among the local folks who were interviewed for the newscast.

“We are probably now the most sound city in the state of Illinois,” the mayor told the TV reporter.

Paula Meyer, the city’s new finance director, also got lots of screen time.

Another public figure had his say in a different way: He posted a comment about the report on the TV station’s website.

“It’s been almost 2 years now, ...” he wrote. “Let it go!”

In case you forgot, Friday was the first anniversary of Ms. Crundwell’s sentencing: a 19-year, 7-month kiss-off on Valentine’s Day.

You can look for increased media interest in mid-April, on the 2-year anniversary of Ms. Crundwell’s arrest.

And late September will be significant: one year after the $40 million settlement in the lawsuit was announced. The media will be looking for an accounting of that money.

Let it go?

Not likely.

BEING A SMALL town – or even a “tiny” one – is no excuse for lax procedures in the handling of public funds.

Dixon is Exhibit A.

Exhibit B might be Ogle County, where this newspaper has reported that the County Board is trying to get a handle on the octopus of a budget that is administered by the sheriff.

Ogle County taxpayers have a right to be concerned about thousands of tax dollars being spent at local restaurants under the guise of police “training”; about interest-free loans obtained by public officials who used the county’s credit cards for personal expenses; and about an off-budget slush fund that has given the sheriff unrestricted access to more than $200,000 over the past couple of years.

And whoever thought it was a good idea to alter public records with white-out because of some private, informal arrangement to have individuals pay their personal expenses that showed up on the county’s credit card bills?

The days of Mayberry-style management of local government are long past.

Taxpayers won’t – and shouldn’t – stand for it.