By The Editorial Board
Rockford Register Star
Posted Nov. 14, 2015 at 9:00 AMWe were taught by our parents that "a promise made is a promise kept." For some of us, it's a lesson we need to relearn from time to time.Evidently that message didn't get through to nine members of the Boone County Board, judging by what they did on Oct. 21 and what they plan on doing Wednesday.In 1999, Boone voters passed a measure to enact a 1 percentage point sales tax, with the revenue going to expand the jail. This public safety tax, voters were told, would be used only to pay off the bonds, and it would end in 2018.The voters said yes because they knew the old jail was obsolete and needed replacement. They also voted yes because the tax would be used only to pay off bonds. Then it would end. Seemed reasonable.Ah, but times and members of the County Board changed. And that promise to use the tax only to pay off bonds? Well, that was then. Whatever those folks said in 1999 applied only to them, the new thinking goes. This is now, and we have other needs.So on Oct. 21, the board voted to transfer $900,000 from the public safety tax's reserve fund to the general fund to balance a 2016 budget that otherwise faced a deficit. Chairman Bob Walberg defended the transfer. He was quoted in the Oct. 22 Register Star as saying, "I believe this is a very necessary action the board took. It's been a very confusing issue ... (and) people have tried to portray it other than what it really was intended to be, as far as the use of the money."The board is voting on the 2016 budget, which includes the transfer, on Wednesday.Walberg, in a conversation with the Register Star on Friday, again defended the board's action and said the County Board in 1999 made no specific promises about the future of the tax. He said that the bulk of the money to be transferred to the General Fund still will be used for public safety purposes, "chiefly for corrections." Although the transfer from the public safety tax fund to the General Fund is authorized at $900,000, Walberg said that only $800,000 will be needed to balance the budget. He called the fund transfer "a technical issue," not a breach of trust.We understand what Walberg is saying. But we have a different view.Ted Biondo, the region's leading taxpayer advocate for more than 20 years, said the Boone County Board action is "a betrayal of the taxpayers who approved that referendum. They changed the intended purpose of the tax, and I think it's going to hinder any other government that wants to put up a referendum for a property tax or sales tax."
Biondo is a Republican member of the Winnebago County Board, a former member of the Rock Valley College board of trustees, a former Rockford School board member and an op-ed contributor to this newspaper on tax-related matters.Stephenson County Board Chairman Bill Hadley had a similar view."They shouldn't be going against what they told the people they were going to do. If you weren't on the board when that referendum went through, you still need to protect the integrity of that referendum. This is an example of why the people don't trust government at all levels," Hadley said.We understand that Boone County is in a financial bind. All local governments in Illinois are in the same boat, thanks in part to the inability of our state lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner to pass a budget. Funds that supply money to counties, cities, community colleges and other governments have been frozen; these governments may never receive all the money the state owes them.However, voters who passed the 1999 referendum say that the public safety tax was passed specifically to pay off bonds for the jail expansion. When that happens in 2018, they believed, the tax would disappear.The current board should honor the voters' beliefs. If that means there's not enough money to fund the current budget, the right thing to do would be to go back to the voters and ask for a tax increase. And if voters turn that down, make the cuts required. It's their government, after all.