Mercer County is broke

Robert Blackford/Editor

Mercer County was on the verge of running out of money Dec. 1, 2008, when the county board met. County Board chairman Tom Harris reported that there was only $10,060 in the General Fund. "Usually there is about $400,000 in the fund at this time of year," said Harris.

Harris blamed the shortage of funds on increased expenditures the county has had to make over the past year in combination with the inability of the state to meet its obligations. "Expenditures are up and revenues are down," said Harris. "We will formulate a plan to keep the county afloat."

The county must meet two payrolls in December of about $90,000 apiece.

Many of the county's union employees were present at the meeting and said they felt 'betrayed' by the board. Two unions are in contract negotiations with the county board. Many resented the fact non-union employees received wage increases while the board was asking union members to make sacrifices.

Harris pointed to the downturn in the economy over the past 23 months.

Harris said, "The state is an absolute train wreck. There is a $2 billion shortfall in the current budget."

Harris responded to questions from the audience about whether he had contacted the area's local representatives. "I haven't spoken to local representatives. This happened so quickly. I don't know what we will do in December."

Harris said that in October the board saw a downturn of $200,000 This has all taken place in the last couple of months.

Harris added, "We've had a drastic increase in expenditures. There has been an unexpected increase in housing prisoners.

Harris said, "We have been scrambling for the last 30 days." A plan will be discussed in the next week or two.

Board member Charlie Box proposed using some of the money in the existing fund balances to pay for the county's expenses. "We have $4 million in reserves."

Union representative Troy Russell spoke up to the board saying that both unions he represented rejected the board's recent contract offer.

The board agreed by an 8-1 vote to approve a preliminary engineering study for a new jail be done by the Public Building Commission at a cost of $20,000.

Harris voted against the measure saying later that it didn't feel right with the county having such financial trouble at the moment.

The board will meet Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m.

The negotiations committee will meet 2 p.m. at the Union Hall on Andalusia Road on Wednesday, Dec. 3.

Newly elected board members Floyd Utz, Tom Haines, Maxine Henry, Charlie Box and Terry Elliott were sworn in at the beginning of the meeting.

The board unanimously voted to reelect Tom Harris as board chairman and Maxine Henry as vice chairman. 

Bi-State

Denise Bulat of the Bi-State Commission spoke briefly about the commission noting they serve a five county area in Illinois and Iowa and 43 municipalities. Bulat noted that Bi-State representatives attend MERGO meetings and provide data to assist the group. "We hope to help the county start a revolving loan fund," said Bulat. "We help prepare an events flyer and a public officials directory with contact info on elected officials."

Bulat said the commission also compiles a salary and fringe benefits survey so a government entity can compare its salaries to similar groups. Over the past year the group has also helped develop a five-county economic development strategy.

Mercer Economic Development Partnership Director Jenny Garner made a presentation on behalf of her office on its goals for the next three years. "We will have a website up by the end of the year."

Hospital

President of the Mercer County Hospital Board of Directors Don Johnson spoke to the board concerning the future of the hospital. "The hospital is in fine shape with some building problems." The hospital has a meeting Dec. 16 with the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board.

"We can't go anywhere until we get their approval," said Johnson. "We have nine qualified contractors willing to bid on the project. We want to start building in the spring."

Johnson added, "We are searching for a new hospital CEO. Don Johnson, Rex Johnson and Dr. Dennis Palmer comprise the hospital board's search committee. "We want to see where health care is going in the next five years," said Johnson. "We are going slow in the search for a new CEO. The health care industry has been changing rapidly."

Johnson added, "I feel confident (interim CEO) Myron Higgins can take us where we want to go."

Current CEO Tim Putnam is leaving Mercer County Hospital to take a position closer to home.

Johnson said the Critical Access Hospital Association has been willing to assist the board.

"It has to be somebody good because we are replacing somebody good," said Johnson.

Putnam was also present at the meeting. He answered questions about the hospital's $10 million expansion project.

"The project has a good chance of going through," said Putnam. "There is no one (another hospital) to object to it. It was mandated by the state that we upgrade." Putnam said that many hospitals in the Chicago area have trouble getting expansion projects approved because competing hospitals often object to the expansion.

Putnam also said that the hospital in Kewanee recently underwent a $50 million renovation.

Johnson answered questions regarding the hospital's cafeteria. "The cafeteria right now is going to be open. A lot of it is going to be taken out." Johnson said if the cafeteria was taken out completely the hospital would be reimbursed an extra $100,000 a year by Medicare. "On purely economical reasons we would eliminate it. It's the most economical thing to do." The new plans for the facility are to renovate and have a smaller cafeteria, about 900 square feet.

Harris told Putnam, "Personally I think you have done a great job." Putnam received a round of applause from the audience.

The board agreed to increase the Geographical Information System fee, from $15 to $20.

Board member Dan Schroeder said, "This should save the county $10,000 per year. The motion to raise the fee passed by an 8-1 margin with Charlie Box voting against it.

Members of the county board rejected a raise increase for themselves next year by a vote of 9-0.