Will County Circuit Clerk Pamela McGuire stepped up Thursday morning to address County Board members about her department's finances. "Don't look so solemn," she said.
"It's budget time," said board member Ed Kusta (R-Bolingbrook), but only half-jokingly.
Members of the Will County Board's Finance Committee met Thursday morning to discuss the county budget, and they made it clear they'll have tough decisions to make as they look to cut more than $4 million from County Executive Larry Walsh's proposed $173 million budget for 2011.
About 30 elected officials and department heads attended, most reiterating the arguments from a public hearing the previous night: Employees are understaffed and overworked, and without a spending increase, their jobs could be in jeopardy. At least 100 people attended the standing-room-only public hearing Wednesday night, mostly including union members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"The work we do is so important to the people directly," said David Delrose, a New Lenox resident who works for the Will County Health Department, during the public hearing. "Cuts would be effectively tying our hands."
Walsh's proposed budget includes an increased property tax levy, which would raise about $4.3 million more than 2010, as well as $3 million in reserves that could be used to balance the budget. The board members are debating whether to remove the reserves or the tax increase — or both — from the proposed budget.
Board Chairman Jim Moustis (R-Frankfort) said* he thinks the board should cut one, but not both, and that the overall goal is to maintain spending levels from last year.
"There's a picture being painted that we're gutting the budget," Moustis said. "No we're not. Why can't you live within the means of the 2010 budget?"
Board member Steve Wilhelmi (D-Joliet) said he was concerned that without any increase to the budget, there would be a great stress on services. He said the increased property tax levy would equate to about $1 per taxpayer on average. If the levy is left where it's been, Wilhelmi said, they could pay an average of $13 less.
"Our goal is to keep people paying as close to what they did last year," he said. "And I don't have a problem taxing the Exxon Mobils, the Exelons, to maintain our services."
Board members agree there's a tension between keeping county residents from spending more on property taxes, but also providing sufficient sources for those residents.
The county also has a contractual obligation to give 2.5 percent pay increases to its unionized workers and non-union workers making less than $80,000, and Walsh said those should be honored or the county could face an arbitration case.
Board members mostly agreed that the 2.5 percent pay raises should be revisited to avoid tougher financial situations in the future.
"Those decisions were made on past practice and in a completely different economy," Kusta said. "If we never challenge it, where does it end? There is another way."
The board will take on the budget in the coming weeks and hopes to give it approval at its Nov. 18 meeting.
*An earlier version of this article wrongly attributed some of Jim Moustis' comments to another member of the Will County Board.