GENEVA – A dozen Kane County Board hopefuls fielded audience questions Sept. 27 at the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County candidates forum at the Geneva Public Library.
Participants were Democrat William Tarver and incumbent Republican David Brown, both of Batavia, for District 10; Democrat Leslie Juby and Republican Brian Jones, both of Geneva, for District 11; Democrat Steve Bruesewitz and Bill Roth, both of St. Charles, for District 12; Republican incumbent Todd Wallace and Democrat Michael Linder, both of St. Charles, for District 13; and Republican incumbent Mark Davoust and Democrat Tom Hodge, both of St. Charles, for District 14.
To the question of what their plan is to solve the $15 million budget gap in fiscal 2023 and to be specific about where to cut, Tarver said he would have to look at how raising taxes or cutting expenses would affect the community.
“As a school social worker, one of the things I like to do is … I talk with people about what means most to them,” Tarver said. “If you have to raise taxes, you want to get their opinion on that. … If you have to cut expenses, where do you begin?”
Tarver listed Animal Control, Veterans Assistance, the Health Department, Emergency Management and Human Resources as examples of what might have to be cut if funds are not raised to cover the budget gap.
Jones said as an attorney and private business owner, he has experience looking at books and figuring out where to cut the fat. He said raising taxes was not the immediate answer.
Jones recommended the county sell the 40 acres next to Settlers Hill and have it developed so it becomes a property tax asset.
Juby asked if reserves should be used to help fund the budget gap or if departments should be asked to reduce their costs.
“At the end of the day, if you still end up with a deficit … I think you need to ask your voters – ask them do you want to cut expenses or do you want to pay a little bit more?” Juby said.
Bruesewitz said it was hard to see a lot of places to cut and no room to raise taxes, either.
The property tax increase that was proposed would cost an additional $13 for a $300,000 home, Bruesewitz said, “less than the price of a pizza.”
“I think we need to be very careful about this and let’s give the people the option of voting for what they want to reduce or perhaps [support] a sales tax,” Bruesewitz said.
Roth said raising taxes should be the last thing and looking at where more efficiencies can be achieved – such as cutting consultant costs, which is “usually twice the price of a salary position.”
“You sometimes need them,” Roth said of consultants.
Linder said the county has not raised its tax levy in 10 years, so if the county had made little incremental increases each year, “we would not be in this spot.”
“We as board members have the responsibility to see that citizens receive the services they deserve and that they need,” Linder said. “For the most part, cutting is not an option.”
Wallace said, “I will never vote to increase taxes. And if that is the only solution we can come up with, we’re not trying hard enough.”
Wallace suggested that department heads could come up with ways to increase efficiencies.
Davoust said this was not the first time the county has faced a budget gap.
“We never stop trying to be more efficient and use the dollars wisely – and we’re not going to stop now,” Davoust said.
Both Davoust and Wallace blamed Illinois lawmakers for pushing an unfunded mandate on counties, causing the current budget woes.
“We will move forward and use reserve funds to make sure that we operate with a balanced budget,” Davoust said. “We’ll see how some of these things sort out with more efficiencies and creating new revenue streams.”
Hodge said use of the Northwestern Medicine Cross Country Course on the former Settlers Hill landfill was being reduced because of noise.
“That is something I find to be irresponsible,” Hodge said. “That property is fantastic. … There are places in this country that people travel hundreds of miles to get there to just go down a mountain.”
Hodge said when people come to Kane County to use the course, they also contribute economically to the area when they stop to eat and go shopping.
“This budget gap might not be as large a gap as being stated. It’s been talked about that there is actually a surplus,” Hodge said.
Brown said all board members must work together to keep costs down.
“I do want to make the point that the county has received $103 million from the American Rescue Plan, of which we have appropriated $40-some million for county development, for county department usage, for development in the county – and save us money doing it,” Brown said.
Brown said countywide elected officials are in charge of their own budgets, working with the county board “to do everything we could possibly do to keep costs down.”
A greener Kane County
Regarding what programs could be developed to mitigate climate change, Jones said transitioning to sustainable energy would be “a good first step.”
Juby said the county could work on transitioning to wind and solar power.
Both Juby and Jones supported green energy and conserving water.
“We do have a limited supply of water, and I think that we need to make sure that we look to mitigate our climate change, that we look at our … natural resources and make sure that those continue to be preserved,” Juby said.
Juby also suggested that maybe the county should look at adding hybrid vehicles to its fleet.
Bruesewitz said he has been talking to people about how to make Kane County greener.
Bruesewitz suggested making bus service more user-friendly. If more people took buses, there would be less traffic congestion and reduced pollution, he said.
“It’s abysmal,” Bruesewitz said of the bus service.
Roth said it was nice to say “go green,” but it is the most expensive option.
“We need to do it in a smart way,” Roth said, recommending natural gas and planting more trees.
“We can get green without breaking the bank,” Roth said.
Linder said the county already has implemented solar power at the Judicial Center.
“We need to add as we can as we do when rehabbing or any new buildings that we look at with alternative sources rather than going right to electricity and natural gas,” Linder said.
Solar power companies could do the work, the installation and the upkeep and the county could pay a monthly lease for the service, Linder said.
Linder said if a third of the people who go to the train station every day could come on a bus driven electrically or biodiesel, “we would certainly save a lot of gas and a lot of pollution.”
Wallace said he has long been a proponent of the environment. His undergraduate degree is in environmental economics and he has an environmental law certificate.
“I think, ultimately, it is on the free market to take steps that are going to be better for the environment,” Wallace said. “As much as we can focus on making our fleet green and things like that, really we need to do what we’re good at, which is preserving our natural resources and giving the people [the ability] to make change.”
Davoust said Kane County is a leader in the area of going greener as its decade plans always looked to energy efficiencies.
Not only adding solar panels at the Judicial Center campus, but preserving open space as county board members also serve as the Forest Preserve District Board, Davoust said.
“The downstate Forest Preserve Act allows us to have 50,000 acres. We’re only halfway there,” Davoust said.
With voters supporting open space referendums, the county has been able to preserve forest preserves to the half-way point, Davoust said.
Hodge restated what Linder said about solar companies taking on the responsibility of installing the panels.
“Let’s say you want to put in a massive solar panel array. These companies put the stuff in for free. You basically lease it from them monthly at a set price and it doesn’t change for 20 years,” Hodge said.
For new construction, Hodge said people can put on living roofs like they do in the city, cutting back on the heat. Once heat is reduced, so is the need for electricity.
Brown said the forest preserve has 22,000 acres that is all open space.
“It’s all there for public use,” Brown said. “That is one area that we can maintain it green. We are an agricultural county. About 45% of the county is in farmland. We need to be very careful with what we do with that farmland.”
Brown said he brought up at a meeting about a solar farm as to whether the county has a way to evaluate farmland to preserve it from development or for solar energy.
“Should we be using up the best farmland in the country to put a solar farm on? Or should we use that information … to determine maybe that’s not such a good idea,” he said.
Tarver said he didn’t have a lot of information on the issue, but he would collaborate with professionals on what to do.
“I would seek information from my community and kind of find out to see what ideas and suggestions they might have,” Tarver said.