Network Releases 7-Year Financial Plan for Rockford, Ill.
The National Resource Network recently presented the findings from its engagement with the City of Rockford, Illinois (the full report and executive summary are available online; you can also watch the final presentation to council here). The partnership launched in January 2018 with unanimous support from the Rockford City Council and the goal of developing a seven-year financial plan focused on improving the City’s fiscal sustainability and economic competitiveness.
The local Rockford Register Star has provided comprehensive coverage of the Network's report, including a piece summarizing the need for change and potential strategies for the city to pursue in tackling its budgetary challenges. In a series of editorials, local leaders and Network Executive Director David Eichenthal also shared their thoughts on the process, the financial plan, and Rockford’s promising future.
NRN presented its final report to the Rockford City Council on Tuesday and noted that with no action the city would effectively run out of money in 2023. While NRN notes that Rockford has one-third fewer staff members than our peer cities, the report also illustrated that the city could eliminate all departments and services except for police and fire and would still face a structural budget deficit.
The final 186-page report included more than 70 recommendations with total savings or new revenue worth more than $261 million. The initiatives would not necessarily be pursued simultaneously, but would help close our structural deficit and identify resources for reinvestment in key areas such as public safety, neighborhoods and economic development.
We will be thoughtful and inclusive as we work the plan and it’s possible some of the recommendations will not have my or the council’s support. As economic factors in the community and the workplace change, so will our plan.
As we look to the future, we will decide as a community what programs and services we want and how we will pay for them. With the input and commitment of our citizens, I’m confident we’ll be able to turn these challenges into opportunities and move forward together toward a prosperous future.
If Rockford officials don’t change the way they do things, the city will run out of money in five years. Not 20 years from now. Not 10 years from now. Five years. Before you panic and tell your Realtor to put up a for sale sign, know that you have a mayor and City Council who are committed to acting to fix the city’s problems before they become dire.
That’s why city officials sought the advice of the National Resource Network. The NRN report that aldermen saw is not so much a wake-up call as a call to action. City officials already knew how bad the financial picture was, but they needed help from an outside group — a fresh set of eyes — to identify possible solutions.
The NRN “Rockford Plan” is a seven-year blueprint for change. To us, it’s the right mix of urgency and farsightedness. NRN has offered options and the mayor and council will determine which options are best for the city and its residents.
We don’t envy the task before city officials. They are going to upset some people and groups as they make difficult decisions. As we’ve pointed out on multiple occasions, the mayor and aldermen live here, shop here and pay taxes here. They want a vibrant community as much — if not more — than you do.
They have some tough calls ahead of them. The future of the city depends on their ability to make them.
The decline in property values — from $2.1 billion in 2008 to $1.4 billion in 2016 — is at the heart of the Rockford fiscal challenge. As property value has declined and the city has collected less in taxes, the city has had to meet state mandated increases in funding for employee pension systems that will grow through 2040. The bottom line is that if city leaders fail to act, Rockford would run a cumulative deficit of approximately $81 million in the next seven years. By the end of 2023, City Hall would run out of money.
In the short term, the city needs to identify ways to cut costs and increase revenue without harming services that are critical to quality of life and the ability to retain and attract residents and business. In the long term, even as the city seeks to limit spending, it has to make strategic investment to grow the tax base and economic opportunity for its residents.
Fundamentally, that means that city government needs to re-think equating more spending with better results.
No city seeking to grow and prosper can abandon its commitment to public safety. But Rockford may be able to reduce crime and improve health by continuing to focus more on lower cost, prevention-first initiatives.
Throughout city government, the quality of service is driven by the ability to attract and retain a dedicated and qualified workforce. Like most local governments, Rockford is highly labor intensive with more than 70 percent of spending going to salaries and benefits. No city can balance its budget on the backs of its workers. But it will be impossible to close Rockford’s budget gap without the cooperation of municipal labor leaders.
As Rockford takes on these challenges, it can serve as a model for tackling these issues head-on with strong leadership, community involvement and a collaborative spirit. But make no mistake: Rockford’s future depends on taking action now.