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Assessing Rock Island County

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
September 7, 2018

This series of articles continues the theme that government is the solution, not the problem, based on building an appreciation and understanding of its 90,056 local components. To refine the focus, county government is assessed since it forms one of the most important, yet least understood, of these entities. Three essential points of value for the criteria: reliability, function and cost form the basis of enhancing our understanding of counties and how they work.

According to the National Association of Counties, there are 3,069 county governments in America. Their website presents an impressive array of statistics that describe in detail what these local governments do. But looking at them through macro lenses dilutes the validity of their function and purpose. Rather than assess counties in a group, one county will be chosen each month for analysis. This article features Rock Island County.

Rock Island County is located in the northwestern corner of Illinois along the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. According to the U.S. Census, it is one of four counties forming the Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL Metropolitan Statistical Area, commonly referred to as the Quad Cities region. The county seat is the City of Rock Island. Its largest city is Moline. Rock Island County’s 2016 population was estimated to be 144,784, but has been in decline since 1980 with a net migration rate of -4.2 percent according to USNews.com.

Recently revealed issues have challenged the county’s stature. In an article posted by OurQuadCities.com on June 19, 2016, reporter Jim Niedelman stated, “Rock Island County’s fiscal mess is well documented. Years of budget deficits became the norm. It’s gotten to the point where County Administrator Dave Ross has said the county is broke.” The article also indicated that Ross, their first independent county administrator, understood that the county had a long history of mismanagement. “I knew they weren’t good when I took the job,” Ross said. “Once I got into it, it was clear it was a desperately dire situation.”

So how did “years of budget deficits” occur? Since counties are actually a historical overlay of administrative functions assigned by its state government, a review of its organization is a good place to start. In Rock Island County, 12 separate elected offices exist at the top of the structure, each with its own unique function. They include the Circuit Clerk, County Clerk, Auditor, Judicial Chief Judge, Coroner, Treasurer and so forth. The County Board forms part of this grouping. At the next level, the County Board Chair is positioned as a co-equal with the County Administrator. None of the elected offices report to the County Board Chair or the County Administrator. At the bottom of the chart, eight other departments are identified, each reporting to the County Board Chair and County Administrator simultaneously. These departments range in scope between Maintenance and Animal Control to Building and Zoning. In total, 16 separate offices and departments exist, all claiming funding from the county budget.

As Peterson observed, “the expanding list of services requires specialists from various disciplines that build walls within county organizations as specialists tend not to talk to each other, and when they do, they find it hard to communicate because they speak different languages. Also, being focused on a single issue by definition hides linkages to other aspects of the problem or system.” Compounding the problem is the limited authority of the county administrator who reports directly to the elected County Board. Although they are responsible for the county budget, they have no authority to deal with the elected offices that comprise over half of the Rock Island County organization.

The final aspect of this analysis looks at the cost of the county to its residents. Two important indicators emerge: local property taxes and sales taxes. In fairness to the county, it is partially shackled by the reality of the broader perspective of its host state. According to an article published in the Chicago Tribune on April 5 of this year, the residents of Illinois pay the second highest property taxes in the nation. Based on the analysis of smartassett.com, a home in Illinois with an assessed value of $250,000 would pay, on average, a property tax of $5,633 compared to the national average of $3,028. But in Rock Island County, the tax bill would be $5,450, very close to the state average.

The state sales tax rate in Illinois is 6.25 percent. But local governments have increasingly added to this number by ballot approved local sales tax add-ons. These have combined to create an average local sales tax of 7.71 percent in Illinois based on an assessment by salesbookhandbook.com. However, in Rock Island County, a recently approved ballot initiative has created a local rate of 8.5 percent, well above the state average.

So what does our three part assessment of Rock Island County tell us? First, although sales tax revenues have begun to infill its finances, “years of budget deficits” hardly sustains an image of reliability. Second, its organizational structure creates an impossible dilemma for its administrator; budget responsibility without authority. Finally, Rock Island County is an expensive place to live.

Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration degree from Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties and metropolitan areas. He heads his own consulting firm guiding governments and organizations in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves on the Executive Council of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA, based in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Contact: [email protected]

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