The City of Rockford is broke. That does not mean, of course, that it is insolvent or bankrupt; after all, it is rather hard for any government with the power to tax to end up in that position (though some occasionally do). Like so many other cities of its size today, however, Rockford has projected expenses for the coming fiscal year that far outstrip expected revenues from taxes and other sources—in other words, what any father, looking at his household budget, would define as broke.
The power to tax, however, provides the city with a different set of options from those available to the father. In this current economic slump, the head of a household does not have many ways of increasing its revenue; he may be lucky simply to keep his job. By necessity, he either has to cut expenses (the prudent, though possibly painful, course) or to borrow to make ends meet, pushing those expenses further into the future to a time when, he hopes, he will have a little more cash in his pocket. The city, however, can generate more revenue through a simple majority vote and, thus, avoid the issue entirely. And that, unfortunately, is what Rockford’s aldermen have chosen to do.
On Monday, February 3, the council voted to increase the telephone tax by 500 percent (from one percent to six percent), to tack a five-percent tax onto the city’s water service, and to increase garbage-collection fees by $24 per year. While the city did delay about $3 million in capital purchases and laid off a total of 29 full- and part-time employees to close its $7.5 million budget gap, the aldermen failed to address the underlying causes of skyrocketing city expenses. Four of the fourteen aldermen voted against the telephone tax; only two voted against the water and garbage fees.
Ald. Frank Beach delivered an impassioned speech, arguing that the city had failed to consider all possible cuts and that the tax increases would only compound the problem by further impoverishing Rockford taxpayers and driving businesses (which have to pay the increased telephone tax on every line) out of Rockford, and, a week earlier, Ald. Pat Curran had pointed out that unionized city employees were not being asked to give up anything—even a portion of their raises—to help balance the budget. (Rockford taxpayers fund the healthcare of each city employee to the tune of $12,000 per year—a plan that far outstrips those of most private-sector workers.) Most of the “debate,” however, sounded like the Bush administration’s rhetoric over its Iraq policy, with alderman after alderman declaring that the “easy thing to do” would be to vote against the tax increases and congratulating himself for his “courage” in raising taxes in order to maintain the current level of city services.
There were some interesting moments, however, that the local media failed to notice. Ald. David Johnson, a Republican, announced that he would be voting for the tax increases because, he argued, he had no choice: The cost of city services cannot be significantly trimmed because the growth in those costs has been driven largely by the expansion of Rockford through annexation. Over the last ten years, during which Rockford’s population rose by 7.7 percent (or 10,689 residents), the size of the city has increased from approximately 45 square miles to approximately 60, an increase of 33 percent.
The problem, as Alderman Johnson later acknowledged in an interview, is that the cost of fire and police protection, of snow removal and street repair, and even of water, sewer, and garbage collection, may be driven more by geography than by population growth. Rockford police today need to cover one third again as many miles as they did in 1990, and firemen need to be prepared to respond to emergencies in areas farther removed from existing stations. Much of the cost of garbage collection is road time, and the cost of providing and maintaining water and sewer lines depends less on the number of houses connected than on the length of the mains and the sewers.
Because de-annexation is not really an option, there is no easy answer to the current budget shortfall, but there is an obvious step that the council could take to keep from making it worse: Quit annexing unincorporated areas of Winnebago County. Responding to a multitude of studies over the past two decades that show that, in the long run, the costs of annexation usually outweigh the additional tax revenues, cities across the United States have taken a more cautious approach to annexation, often requiring developers (who typically make the annexation requests) to pay for a cost-benefit analysis before they will consider an annexation proposal.
Here in Rockford, however, at the same meeting where the tax hikes were approved, the council voted 14-0 to approve one annexation proposal and 13-1 to approve another. (Bob Greene, the Democratic alderman from Ward 1, the fastest-growing ward in the city, voted against annexing property that would be added to his ward.) In light of those votes, it is hard to believe that the council is taking the budget crisis seriously.
With the highest crime rate in the entire state (higher even than Chicago’s!) and property taxes that are still, even after the end of the school-desegregation lawsuit, some of the highest in the country, Rockford needs to get its priorities straight. Yes, refusing to annex more property will undoubtedly slow down development, but, since the American Farmland Trust consistently ranks Northern Illinois as one of the most endangered farming areas in the country, that may not be such a bad thing. And with Rockford now occupying about 12 percent of the geographic area of Winnebago County, developing new population centers—and new centers of political power—may benefit the county as a whole.
Just a little over a week after the council meeting, the local Gannett paper reported that Aurora may have surpassed Rockford as the second-largest city in Illinois. I think we should let the title go. What Rockford needs now is a healthy contingent of Little Rockfordians.