Originally Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2013, 7:52 pm
Last Updated: Feb. 13, 2013, 10:16 pm
Local governments laugh at call for more transparency
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SPRINGFIELD — It's hutzpah with a capital H.
Two Illinois lawmakers want to require local governments — school districts, cities, counties, townships, water districts, fire protection districts and the like — to be more open with taxpayers about government debt.
But local governments say anyone in Springfield preaching debt management and transparency has, well, a lot of hutzpah.
"That's hilarious," said Decatur City Manager Ryan McCrady. "They want to distract from their problems by shifting focus to us? Fine. But make sure to put my bond rating next to the state's."
McCrady said Decatur has a far better bond rating than the state, which just saw a credit downgrade because of inaction on its massive pension debt.
Dave McDermott, chief financial office for Moline schools, said it is difficult to find a more open unit of government than a local school district.
"I would say we are one of the most transparent," McDermott said. "We're posting information many times, in many ways and in many different venues."
And McDermott is quick to say local taxpayers almost always know when and if a school is spending money.
"When you look at your tax bill, and 60 percent goes to a school district, you are going to make sure that 60 percent is spent wisely,' McDermott said.
The proposed legislation would add local government debt information to the state's online information portal, force all new legislation to report debt impact and create a local debt review board.
House Republican Leader Tom Cross said he wants to "educate" voters.
"People have a right to know and should know what debt is out there," Cross said Wednesday. "How's their money spent? Is that tax working? How much are they raising from that tax, and how is it being spent?"
The Illinois Comptroller's office already collects much of that data.McCrady said local voters can get that information by going to any meeting of the city council.
"We have to vote on every expense, and those meetings are all on TV," McCrady said. "I talk with local taxpayers every day. They know what is going on in their city."
Jerry Crabtree is associate director of Township Officials of Illinois, which represents the state's 1,432 townships in Springfield. He said even tiny local governments stay in touch with taxpayers.
"Townships operate in the community," Crabtree said. "And elected officials will hear from taxpayers almost 24 hours a day."
Crabtree said townships, for the most part, are financially secure.
"I find it ironic that the state is picking on a unit of government that pays its bills and does plan for the future," Crabtree said, noting Illinois' unpaid bills and massive pension debt.
Since 2008, which marked the advent of tougher lending laws, few local governments have been able to spend wildly on borrowed money.McCrady said the new lending requirements are the "financial equivalent of a proctology exam."
Ron Sandack, the former Republican mayor of Downers Grove and the city's current state representative, said there may be some local governments with good finances and little debt. But there are hundreds of school districts, more than a thousand townships and countless park districts, fire districts and mosquito abatement districts, he said.
"If you ask your neighbor, I think they distinguish less who levied the tax," Sandack said. "They just look at the bottom line and say I'm paying more than I was the year before."
The transparency proposals are, for now, ideas only; lawmakers have not held a hearing on any of the plans.