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Column: Weighing savings vs. community identity

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012 1:15 a.m. CST
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David Giuliani

Consolidating government entities and services can mean savings, which catches the attention of taxpayers, but it also worries officials who like things just the way they are. 

At my previous newspaper, I lived in a town of about 14,000 that has two school districts. That means two administrations, two school boards, two athletic directors, two special education directors, and the list goes on.

Some residents think the districts, divided by a river, should consolidate. And even a fair number of politicians privately believe that’s a good idea. But few want to come forward publicly, for fear of offending friends and neighbors who feel otherwise.

Usually, a town’s newspaper is the only entity to bring up such a dicey issue – something the politicians would rather avoid. In our reporting, the members of the school board from the larger district were open to consolidation, while those across the river stood strongly against the idea, with one member vowing it would never happen on his watch.

That is understandable. The leaders of the smaller district fear their constituents’ interests would take a back seat to those in the larger one if they merged.

Sterling and Rock Falls are in a similar situation – two towns divided by a river. That means double of everything – police departments, dispatcher services, fire departments, public works departments, you name it.

With the fire departments, the cities have made progress. For the past couple of years, the Rock Falls deputy fire chief has served as Sterling’s fire chief. This fosters more coordination between two departments that already back up each other in responding to major incidents.

Sterling, the larger of the two towns, would like a total consolidation of the fire departments. It also would like to see the dispatch services combined, along with the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department.

To the latter idea, one Rock Falls alderman said that would help “delete” Rock Falls’ community identity.

Not surprisingly, Rock Falls, as the smaller of the towns, is more resistant to the idea of consolidation of services. Its leaders don’t want the larger community to trample on its citizens’ concerns.

Sterling keeps pushing the idea anyhow.

Recently, the Sterling City Council hiked its property tax levy by 7 percent. Asked what could be done to avoid such increases, City Manager Scott Shumard suggested more consolidation of services with Rock Falls. That would be far preferable to reducing the city’s staff, he said.

“Hopefully, there’s more momentum to do something jointly [in consolidating services] with Rock Falls, because I don’t know how you cut people anymore; I really don’t,” Shumard said.

Does the city of Sterling hit some nerves with such talk? Of course. Does this mean it should avoid the issue? Well, discussing it can’t hurt.

Is it really convenient for public?

You would be hard-pressed to find a single city council or school board that meets regularly during the day. 

They meet at night, when most of the working public has a chance to attend. 

Some county boards, however, meet during the day. Lee and Carroll counties are among them. 

Last month, Lee County Board member Greg Witzleb, R-Dixon, protested the board’s morning meetings.

No one paid him any heed. The board quickly voted to approve a daytime schedule for the next year. 

Witzleb told me recently that the issue still bothered him.

“We’re primarily a blue-collar county. We’re not affording people the opportunity to attend meetings,” he said. “They would have to take time off from work to attend a meeting. That wouldn’t sit well with their employers.”

When the issue has come up before, members said they’ve seen no difference in attendance between day and night meetings. 

Maybe so, but at night, most residents at least could choose whether they could attend.

Deep down, county officials must know that night meetings are better for the public.

Otherwise, why would they always have the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals meet at night?

For the past few months, this body has been considering a proposed wind farm in the southwestern corner of the county. While the wind farm is not a big issue with most people in the county, it’s hugely important for residents in Hamilton and East Grove townships. 

I could only imagine the outcry if the zoning board started meeting during the day, preventing working residents from attending. 

The current County Board may like the daytime-only schedule, but is it really convenient for the public?

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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