Rock Island board members say administrator is needed to fix county's finances
Rock Island County is facing another difficult year.
The county auditor has essentially said the cupboard is bare, as the county remains without an administrative leader and faces an uncertain future for the county-run nursing home.
"We've had a fundamental flaw in the Rock Island County budget," said Democratic Rock Island County board member Kai Swanson on "The Cities" with Jim Mertens. "The roots of which go back to the 1980s in that (the budget) is insufficiently resourced."
Two factors weigh heavily in the budgetary problems for the county: low tax income for the government and liabilities.
Rock Island has the lowest county-level property taxes in Illinois, but many residents end up paying a higher bill because of schools, libraries and fire protection districts, according to Swanson. The county, however, is left with little with which to fund a meaningful budget.
"When we had a county administrator in place who was keeping a laser focus on the budget, we started to come back a little bit," Swanson said.
The county needs a 3 percent to 6 percent margin to make the budget work. But, since the county administrator left nearly eight months ago, the margin is gone and the county is again "digging the ditch," as Swanson says.
"We've been struggling for about three years," said Drue Mielke, a Republican member of the Rock Island County board. "We've been borrowing Tax Anticipation Warrants to cover payroll sometimes."
Both Swanson and Mielke agreed that the 30 years of budgetary neglect should never have happened in the first place.
Hope Creek nursing home is one project that helped the county keep its A3 credit rating, which generated more than $800,000 in savings for the county. Now, Hope Creek seems to be in a similar financial bind that it was before the last county administrator left, leaving many wondering if it's time for the county to cut and run.
The county courthouse project is another point of contention among county board members.
"The trouble is that we can't sell it because it's a government-owned building," Mielke said. "If Rock Island County or Rock Island City didn't have so many vacant buildings, we might be able to because there would be a market for it. Selling it is a good idea, but it's not the right time."
Swanson blames much of the structural issues on well-meaning part-time politicians who were tasked with running an increasingly complex organization that evolved beyond their capacity or bandwidth.
The biggest keys that the board is looking for in the next county administrator are a broad financial acumen, the ability to work well in a team and an assertive attitude.
"We all have the best interest of the county in our hearts," Mielke said. "How we get there is where we differ."
The board will interview candidates provided by the government human resources department in the coming weeks.
"It really has laid bare how quickly structural issues can rise right back to the surface," Swanson said.