No Levy For The VAC, No Change In the LRA/Savanna Depot Soap Opera
By MICK PARSONS | For The Prairie Advocate News
MOUNT CARROLL – After a lengthy discussion sounding more like deja vu than serious deliberation, the County Board again voted against allowing the Veteran’s Assistance Commission to use the tax levy it is allowed to use according to state statute, and once again relegated the agency to the table droppings the board deigns to provide. And while some business did manage to get done – such as State’s Attorney Scott Brinkmeier finding statute support for County Board Chairman Rod Fritz’s call for more economic development incentives from the county – yet another discussion and a presentation, some of the businesses located at the Savanna Army Depot, ended up in a board decision to once again hurry up and wait on the LRA Board.
No levy for VAC
The VAC, in making yet another run at the board during the annual budget falderal – that this year includes the entire board and not just the Finance Committee – asked for a levy at approximately .26%, which would have given them an operating budget of around $75,000. The actual impact to county residents would be a slight tax increase of 1.79%, which is still below the 5% increase required to merit a Truth in Taxation Public Hearing. Representatives from the VAC made it clear that the primary purpose of asking for the levy, yet again, is to allow them to do more than they have been able to do under the parental scrutiny of the county board.
Currently, the VAC office is open 16 hours a week – four hours a day for four days. Butch Lease, the VAC Superintendent, is paid for those hours at $10 an hour. His assistant – who also handles intake interviews with Veterans seeking assistance, help with the odious paperwork and bureaucracy of the Veteran’s Administration, and access to the benefits due to them as a result of their service to the country – is unpaid. In addition to office hours, Lease is sometimes required to make home visits to Veterans who are unable to come to him; he is not compensated for that time.
In what has become an annual tilting at the windmill, the VAC offered a breakdown of what it would do with the levy money – which included not only a pay raise for Lease, but, for the first time, an actual paycheck to his assistant. With actual and anticipated increases in the number of Veterans returning to Carroll County with troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, a second assistant position was also listed.
The bulk of the increase that the VAC would see from the tax levy would be held – not used as salary – so that the VAC can offer the one time emergency financial assistance the office is supposed to be able to offer as a stop gap between the time Veterans apply for access to programs through other county assistance programs, like Carroll County Senior Services, Lutheran Social Services, and the Tri-County Opportunities Council.
While these agencies provide much needed local support services, however, they cannot help with the paperwork and hurdles that are the bureaucratic soul of the Veteran’s Administration. Both Lease and his assistant are required to take training courses in order to know the proper procedure to do the paperwork.
The County Board as Committee of the Whole suffers from a similar philosophical block as the now defunct Finance Committee. Part of it, to no one’s surprise who has ever dealt with the county or who has paid any attention to the history of the board going back several board chairman, is a contest over wages.
There are those on the board – among them Annette Rahn, who often rails in support of business and taxpayers, but has consistently taken the approach that county employees are neither crucial to the business of the county nor are they taxpayers – who simply see no merit in paying someone a living wage, particularly when the employee in question is forced upon the county by state statute. Cheryl Cole has also chimed in from time to time, concerned about tax rates that she and others have characterized as high.
Recently, however, even Zoning Officer Julie Yuswak had to point out to Cole and others on the board that until there’s a change in the way public schools are funded, there’s very little that can be done to lower the tax rate. Rahn has said that Carroll County’s tax rate is one of the highest around – though she has never offered more than anecdotal evidence and the qualification not to compare Carroll County to Cook County or the collar counties.
The VAC’s request was offered up and shot down, with Juanita Randclev being the only vote in favor of allowing the VAC to use the tax levy they are legally entitled to. Vice Chair Kevin Reibel saw no merit or purpose in the VAC’s request; Annette Rahn and Joe Payette both claimed that county tax payers aren’t interested in funding the VAC if it means a minuscule addition to the tax levy; Joyce Schubert thought maybe they could simply leave the VA paperwork in some other office – like the Carroll County Senior Center – for Veterans and their families to pick up and fill out on their own. Paul Hartman, who was appointed the VAC Liaison after Gerald Bork’s resignation from Board, did not support the initiative and has not, since last year’s budget falderal, even showed up to one of the VAC’s quarterly meetings.
The rest of the County Board’s mental block in regards to the VAC simply seems to be – again – the fact that no one on the board sees the merit of an office dedicated to assisting Veterans. Or, to be more fair, they resent having it forced on them by the state in same way they have historically resented the Animal Control Officer, the Highway Department, and publicly funded schools.
After some more rehash that could have been and probably was expressed in the exact same words as last year, the Board decided to allow the VAC enough money in wages to stay open five days a week – for four hours a day. The slight increase in wages – to $8,320 annually – was intended to allow the VAC more latitude in possibly being able to pay the Assistant Superintendent. There was no allowance made for a second assistant, or for money to put back in trust.
LRA and the SAD
The rest of the high drama of the September 20th meeting had to do with the Savanna Army Depot – specifically, the LRA, Carroll County, and the dozen or so businesses there – who are now placed in the middle. The county has been trying to get out from under the impending liability of the Depot’s dilapidated water and sewer system that bleeds $70,000 a year in expenses while only bringing in around $10,000. The LRA and the LRA board liaison, Paul Hartman, have said, in one way or another, that the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army are the hold up. The LRA has another decade before it sunsets and enough money in the kitty to wait that long for another body or bodies – either Carroll and JoDaviess Counties or, Riverport Railroad, which has said it would purchase the water and sewer system in order to keep it from falling into disuse – to take it off their hands.
From the LRA’s perspective, this appears to be their only plan – if, indeed, that’s what it is.
A representative of some businesses at the Depot made a short presentation to the board, asking the county to simply wait and let the businesses there “make something of the place.” Several businesses, all of which are geared towards alternative energy, have taken root at the depot, a few with international ties and prospects of bringing additional jobs to the county. Among the companies who have a vested interest in the success of the Savanna Army Depot are Solar Wind, a new company getting ready to build a solar farm at the depot; Jean Blanc International, which helps retrieve oil from sand, as in the Bakken Reserves in North Dakota; Depot Electric Supply, which sells machinery and parts used in fracking for natural gas; N-Ovation, which converts nitrogen into electricity.
Hartman pointed out that it was all well and good and that everyone wants to see the Depot take off; but he’s looking for a binding agreement from the LRA that will move Carroll County out of owning future liability or expectation of service once the LRA sunsets. Tom Kamper, manager of Riverport Railroad – a company not associated with the group of businesses making its presentation to the board - said the only reason his company offered to buy the water and sewer system was because they believe it’s important not only to the future success of the site for Riverport Railroad, but for the other businesses as well.
The LRA will meet next month on October 26th, and after another, at least more informative rehash, the County Board decided to wait and see.
The one thing this county board seems willing to throw money at is economic development – as long as they can hold onto the purse strings. After Chairman Fritz’s assertion a few meetings ago that the county ought to be able to have financial resources to put towards attracting and/ or keeping businesses in Carroll County, State’s Attorney Scott Brinkmeier informed the board that, by ordinance, it was allowed to do so. Brinkmeier encouraged the board to come up with specific qualifications and have a process in place to award such monies.