My View: Rockford must do things differently and do different things

Rockford, Illinois David Eichenthal Rockford Register Star October 6, 2018 Finance + Operation

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.