Posted Online: Jan. 18, 2013, 6:00 am

Editorial: The failure to plan

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Count us among the many residents the Rock Island County board made very nervous on Tuesday when members hastily approved two actions which will affect the future of the county for decades to come.

The first was the board decision to ask voter approval to empower an unelected building commission to decide whether and how to deal with the desperate need to update county court and office buildings. Clearly that's the board's job.

The second was the decision to put off action on the advisory referendum to reduce the size of the board that was approved by 72 percent of voters in November. Board members instructed a committee to request an opinion on the matter from Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Both actions amount to substituting crisis management for the professional and deliberate planning the county needs to map a bright future.

The board did vote 20-1 to put on the April 9 ballot a broadly written referendum which would give an unelected quasi-government panel wide authority to borrow money and make tough decisions regarding all types of county buildings.

It's regrettable that such a weighty and costly matter became a rushed affair shoved through after the threat of legal action delivered by county judges in closed session Tuesday. The worrisome wording of this referendum screams of hasty decision-making that requires long-range planning.

(Cheers to Brian Vyncke, D-Moline, the only board member who voted against it.)

It's impossible, for example, not to contrast the county's desperate, knee-jerk reaction to a legal threat to the City of Rock Island's careful and public planning effort which resulted in a new police station being included in the city's five-year plan.

Let us be clear: We concur it is long past time county leaders address the deplorable condition of county buildings neglected into near-ruin. But this broad measure could be a very tough sell for voters. If they reject this referendum, what then?

Serious questions remain over what a new county complex should include and where it will be.

Board Chairman Phil Banaszek has promised to launch a public education campaign about the process and the need for updating the space in the run-up to the local election less than three months from now.

Good. Concerned citizens will have more questions than the ones we've raised here.

In the meantime, it's important to note that the current dilemma raises larger issues regarding the county's failure to plan for such tough decisions. County leaders appear to be putting the cart before the horse on other fronts critical to the future of Rock Island County and the cities and villages it contains. Here are a couple of examples:

-- The county faces real challenges in financing its Hope Creek nursing home, Niabi Zoo and other facilities. The board needs a plan that projects its financial condition out five or more years. Despite passing balanced budgets, the county has incurred deficits resulting in dwindling reserves. Continued deficits could erase those reserves, leaving the county too strapped to adequately operate and maintain existing facilities. Given those facts, should county leaders empower an unelected commission with the authority to heap as much as $40 million in new debt on county taxpayers?

-- Many believe the county is the government unit best positioned to help spur countywide growth. Population and housing in the county both are stagnant. Leveraging capital and human assets to attract growth is crucial. Better court and office facilities should be part of such a growth strategy, and should not be dealt with as a stand-alone issue.

As we've said before, we don't care how many members sit on the county board. (November voters did, though, and the board should listen to them.) But we believe it is essential that all who do commit their energies to the professional planning and management absolutely essential to the future of our area.

Failing to do so is a disservice to the electorate and to themselves. The challenges at hand require wisdom, not sheer numbers.