RI County board members say future tax hikes need to be considered

RI County administator might take sales tax proposal to voters in 2016

By Jim Niedelman | jniedelman@whbf.com

Published 11/29 2015 02:38PM

Updated 11/29 2015 02:38PM

One of the regular disappointments over the years in management by local government has generally come from the same place -- Rock Island County.

It's a history and an image its representatives would like to change.

You don't have to go back very far just look at the recent budget years. For the fiscal year ending in 2013, the county board approved a budget with more than a $2 million shortfall. Revenue moves helped deliver a $15,000 surplus by year end. Fiscal year end 2014 saw the county facing another $2 million shortfall. That wound up being a $15,000 deficit. 

The current fiscal year delivered yet another $2 million shortfall. That didn't get much better by the end of the year.

That brings us to present day.

For the first time, Rock Island County has a county administrator in Dave Ross to manage the finances and operations of the local government.

Ross came in realizing the financial house needs to be in order and pushed a property tax increase of 16.8 percent. It translates into an increase of 38 dollars a year to someone owning a home worth $100,000.

It was contentious when it came time to vote.

In fact, it took two votes on the same night to push through the tax hike after the first vote failed earlier this month.

The 2016 budget still goes in with a $2.8 million deficit.

County Administrator Dave Ross says reserves will be used to cover that gap. Ross says next year could be even bleaker. He warns the county could be staring at a $4.5 million deficit that could force 90 job cuts: 48 from the sheriff's office alone and 42 from the courts and other county offices.

Ross says the jobs can only be saved with new revenue. He might ask voters to raise the sales tax or to lift the 25-cent cap on the general fund property tax levy.

Two men very familiar with this history and the most recent budget debate are Democratic County Board Member Richard Brunk representing District 13 and Republican County Board Member Drue Mielke representing District 22.

Brunk voted in favor of the tax increase and Mielke voted against it.

Year after year, the county has been dipping into reserves and leaving them at very low levels. Everyone saw this coming with new County Administrator Dave Ross.

“I’m just afraid that the tax increase is too much good medicine too soon. I don’t want to kill the patient,” said Rock Island County Board Member Drue Mielke, (R) District 22. “There’s a psychological measure to people leaving and people are leaving my district because taxes are already too high.”

How important was the tax vote result in terms of giving new County Administrator Dave Ross a win?

“I think it was important, no so much for Mr. Ross specifically, but to show that we have confidence in the process,” said Rock Island County Board Member Richard Brunk, (D) District 13.

Then there's Dave Ross' call for voters to decide a sales tax hike next year or lifting the cap on the property tax levy for the general fund.

How much would Brunk and Mielke get behind these if it means saving jobs, especially in the sheriff's office?

“I believe that we will need to do something,” Brunk said. “It’s important to clarify that Mr. Ross’ plan is to provide a five-year budget proposal. Actually, I believe he’s going to be working on a number of different options to present to the public so the public can know full well what they’re looking at as far as the options and whether or not they approve such a measure.”

“I’d have to look at it,” Mielke said in terms of the sales tax. “It’s more equitable.”

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