Posted Online: April 03, 2013, 11:00 pm
Editorial: RICO debate missing point
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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus
Given the focus of the debate surrounding Tuesday's public building commission referendum, we wouldn't be surprised if Rock Island County voters overwhelmingly reject it.
Proponents of the measure to broaden the commission's powers have spent too much time focusing on why new space is necessary -- a premise we suspect most residents already accept. But too often salesmen have glossed over the real points of contention: Trust, timing, cost and accountability. We fear continuing to do so will derail creation of a funding mechanism that needs voter support.
Among those concerns, lack of public trust in county government may be the most widespread and the hardest to address.
Though Rock Island County is one of the most frugal governments around -- sometimes too frugal -- distrust of its leaders is high. That was evident last November when, even though voters returned most incumbents to office, they overwhelmingly backed slashing the size of the board.
Some reasons for that distrust are steeped in history. We suspect, however, it also is due in larger part to the perception that the county does too much business behind closed doors. To their credit, RICO leaders, led by new board Chairman Phil Banaszek, have infused current talks with a level of transparency missing when things like a proposed scheme to move county offices out of downtown Rock Island surfaced.
The ad hoc committee he appointed ought to bolster public confidence. The panel of community leaders and taxpayers has been charged with doing the work necessary to craft a smart long-term solution. We find that especially encouraging in a county short on planning and long on crisis management. That's how we got here. Decades of neglect contributed to dangerous, crowded, crumbling structures. But quibbling over who's at fault won't get us out. A wise plan will. Though we don't yet know what the panel will recommend, we're encouraged strategic planning finally is central to the process.
Why all the rush? Opponents say RICO can afford to wait while the panel does its work before voting on a much more limited referendum and a specific plan. Can it, and if so, at what cost?
If voters say no, judges almost certainly will invoke their right to compel courthouse construction. (A word about the judges: We believe they are getting an unfair rap. Imagine their frustration as they butted their heads against the courthouse's crumbling walls to get leaders to do what they must. They believe they had little choice. Besides, it got results.)
So what happens when -- not if -- they win in court? The Progress Rock Island Committee estimates taxpayers will pay at least 25 percent more for a court-ordered building than they would if an expanded public building commission is created to finance a construction plan. Under a court-ordered plan, the county will have just 10 years to pay off the bonds, compared to the 20 years under the PBC. Further, judges, not elected officials or taxpayers would decide what a new courthouse would look like and that court-ordered solution also would not allow the county to address other crucial building needs beyond the courthouse. RICO also couldn't refinance at lower interest rates the balance owed on the jail and justice center the PBC was created to construct. Neither will it address the maintenance issues we face today, something a broader PBC could handle.
Finally, even if judges do not follow through with the threat to sue, the next opportunity to introduce a referendum can't come until March 2014. In the meantime, interest rates, now at historic lows, could go up, building costs will rise and the potential of a costly court judgment remains high. It makes little sense to support a plan that will increase, not decrease the price for what must be done.
Which brings us to the compelling issue of accountability. Opponents' strongest argument is that voters will not automatically have the right to vote directly on future building decisions. They are right. If voters approve the referendum Tuesday, the board does not have to ask their approval for this or future construction plans covered under the PBC's new authority. But that does not leave voters out of the process. They still have the ballot box during board member elections.
Further, it simply is not true that an expanded PBC can act without direction to build buildings at taxpayer expanse. The county board must chose the plan, the site -- and set the expected costs -- and board members must vote to give the PBC the authority to sell the bonds for any project it approves. We're certain some believe that each and every option should come to a public referendum. That way, we fear, lies chaos. Finding a plan on which everyone will agree seems impossible. That's why we elect officials to make those tough choices.
And make no mistake, even with an expanded commission, county board members remain directly responsible for any decisions they make to the voters who elect them. It is not, we suspect, a duty they will take lightly. Indeed, as Mr. Banaszek noted, "The old-timers told us that if we did this, we were going to tick off the votes and get thrown out of office, but it needs to be done. It's what is best and cheapest for the taxpayers."
Whatever one might think about how we got to this point, he's right about the way out of it. We recommend voters say yes to the referendum Tuesday to begin a long, painstaking and open process to address the county's pressing building needs.