Palos Hills Mayor Jerry Bennett doesn’t have much good to say about state government.
“The gorilla in the room is the state of Illinois,” Bennett said last week during remarks at the Hills Chamber of Commerce meeting.
He started out his speech with a lot of information about the good things going on about his town during the past year and apoligized for ending it on what he called a "downer" for adressing the state mess and how it will affect Palos Hills and local goverments throughout the state in general.
Bennett and others area mayors have been highly critical of a proposal by Gov. Bruce Rauner that calls for a 50 percent cutback in towns’ share of state income tax revenue.
The six communities in the Reporter’s coverage area would lose approximately $6.6 million under the proposal.
Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury summarized the dilemma towns face if the plan came to fruition.
“You either lay off or raise taxes,” Bury told the Reporter last week.
But Bennett pointed out last Thursday that the state has been a thorn in municipalities’ sides long before Rauner took office earlier this year.
“It’s in the news now because the governor made it his first volley,” Bennett said.
In reality, the state, under the leadership of Governors Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich also foisted upon towns numerous unfunded mandates that made balancing local budgets difficult, Bennett said.
For years, towns have faced a pension crisis that Bennett lays at the feet of state legislators, who approved pension enhancements while limiting municipalities’ ability to fund them.
“We could not keep up,” Bennett said, adding that property tax cap legislation made the job even tougher.
But the pension crisis isn’t the only thing that’s pitted Rauner against local leaders in tug of war that well may determine the state’s financial future.
“There’s just a minutia of things that added up. We’ve had to fight other administrations in the past. The state (is facing) a huge, huge dilemma,” said Bennett, president of the Southwest Conference of Mayors.
Still, local leaders have managed to keep their spending plans in the black—as required by law—and made whatever cuts necessary to do so, officials said.
Despite the struggle, Bennett said, the state would rather take money from towns than raise additional revenue or make budget cuts. The results could be staggering.
“There’s not going to be local government anymore,” Bennett added.
Local governments are no stranger to trimming the budget.
During the recent economic slowdown, Palos Hills was forced to make difficult cuts, including a 17 percent reduction in staff and cuts in capital projects.
Hickory Hills Mayor Mike Howley, who also addressed chamber members, said recent investments in his town’s public works budget represent “the cost of government, the cost of doing business.”
Palos Hills, meanwhile, recently replaced all of its police vehicles, upgrading the fleet to SUVs.
But public safety budgets, which are a big portion of a town’s spending plan, will certainly be affected if Rauner’s proposed cuts go through, mayors agree.
Bennett offered one other idea to solve the dilemma. “Maybe we should go to Springfield and give (legislators) the keys to city hall,” he said.