County's financial crisis coming to a head

Cala Smoldt/Correspondent

Financial crisis is the reason for the special meeting of the Mercer County Board Friday. After a closed session to discuss personnel, County Board Chairman Brian Anseeuw R-Viola opened by saying, “Financial reality has raised its head in Mercer County (that has) been in the making for 30 years. We are in a financial crisis.” He said the county is paying higher healthcare costs for it’s employees than similar counties. “Our county cannot sustain employees (healthcare costs), which are 30 percent higher than similar benefit plans.” Mr. Anseeuw said the reason they did not wait until the regularly scheduled meeting was to immediately institute recommendations by operational auditing company Bellwether LLC, Bloomington.

“Don’t assume we will lay off people,” he said they are talking with each of the county department heads to find out what their ideas are. Declaring a state of fiscal emergency is important because it allows the county to look at each departments spending, streamline and possibly merge departments. They will also be looking at the cost of healthcare and welfare for county personnel. 

The board raised fees they described as ‘outdated’ in the Sheriff’s Department and Recorder’s Office. The new Sheriff’s fees will go into affect immediately while the recorder’s office must wait for updated software. The new fees will be as follows: Total real estate recording fee will be $73, non-real estate total is now $64. For recording subdivision Plat, the total will be $86, for recording Survey/PLAT, the total is $45. According to the Mercer County Courthouse website (http://www.mercercountyil.org/Departments/CountyClerkRecorder.aspx), the previous fee for recording both real estate and non real estates is $45. 

Lower property taxes on the horizon?

The population base has dropped by 1,700 since 1995. “The solution is, we’re going to have to make some very difficult decisions,”

Mr. Anseeuw said, “Our county is dying. If you drive around Aledo…Viola and New Windsor, you’re gonna see lots of vacant houses that have been for sale for maybe more than a year. We have to build our tax base. You build a tax base by getting people to move here. The way you do that is making it an easier place to live with a more efficient government, the tax burden less on that tax payer that wants to come out here. And that’s gonna be something, (that) 30 years it’s taken to get to this point, it’s not gonna be able to be fixed in a year.” 

Accordingly, the county is maxed out on levies subsidizing fees on the tax payers of Mercer County. The board estimated that even if the county were able to raise all tax levy’s in  the general fund, it would amount to less than $40,000 per year. Illinois is the second highest in property taxes in the nation.

Matt Sorenson, Bellwether LLC, said this is just the first step to prevent financial crisis. The first installment of property taxes will come in June, at which point the county will be able to pay it’s bills. He said Mercer County may have some financial surprises ahead in the form of the three different bargaining units looking for new contracts. He said once contracts are in place there are usually retroactive pay, bonuses and salaries that come into play. “The number can be substantial.” The county is currently in negotiations for with the highway department. Once established they will move onto the next. Union members from the highway department, sheriff's department, state's attorney's office, animal control, 911 dispatch and correctional staffs have been without a contract since November 2013.

The only public comment was made by Jason Soseman, “I just wanna thank the board for looking out for the tax payers, appears the resolution seems to put that in the forefront, a lot of people have forgotten the tax payers are what makes this county a good county. Thank you for taking steps to look out for them.”

If no action is taken, Mr. Anseeuw said the county will be out of money within months, “ We’ll be completely financially destitute. It’s very serious. Like we said, we’ve been dealing with this for a very long time. Writing has been on the wall.”