Normal's former city manager has retired, but he's still speaking out. And he has a warning.
Mark Peterson was asked to write an article for a professional journal that was rejected as too strongly worded. Peterson rewrote it, but ultimately withdrew the submission.
"It was pretty direct and I think there was some concern that some constituents of that organization might find it to be offensive, a little bit," said Peterson. "It wasn't intended to be."
Over his 35 years in local government, most of that with Normal, Peterson has seen an increase in the unwillingness to compromise by state and federal elected officials and weaker partnerships with state and federal governments. Both weaker partnerships and an unwillingness to compromise are having a profound effect on municipalities and their residents.
Peterson said local governments affect citizens every day with everything from the roads, snow removal, parks and rec programs, and public safety.
"I think there is a slow decline in the ability of cities financially to respond to the demands and expectations of citizens. And that's due to some fundamental changes to the funding model used by governments. That model just doesn't work like it did 15 or 20 years ago," said Peterson during GLT's Sound Ideas.
Peterson cites declining sales taxes due to online sales and technological advances that have caused a swift decline in the collection of a telephone tax on landlines. Peterson also cites a failure by state and federal elected officials to deal with "complex problems that are desperate for a solution." He lists immigration, health care, and infrastructure on the federal level and public employee pensions as the looming issue in Illinois.
"This extremism where somebody has bought into a certain ideological perspective and they are completely unwilling to compromise—that's the foundation of the legislative process. Without compromise it cannot work. There are members of Congress and probably of the Illinois General Assembly who've said, 'I will not compromise,' and frankly are proud of it. They would rather shut government down than compromise."
Federal Infrastructure Funding
Peterson called the no-compromise mindset "disastrous" and cited crumbling infrastructure as an example of how government is failing cities and towns. He's seen a slow erosion of federal funds and an unwillingness to compromise on what has traditionally be a bipartisan issue: funding roads and bridges.
"Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, they all like infrastructure. It puts people back to work, it drives our economic engine, it's good for economic development. Infrastructure is a good thing. Nobody debates infrastructure. Despite the fact that infrastructure funding is universally popular, people who are even generally anti-government or anti-tax, they're OK with that as long as it's going to roads and curbs, and the federal government has been unable to come up with a sustainable funding source and a plan for infrastructure across the country and that's boggling to me," said Peterson.
The gas tax was last raised in 1993 and it was not indexed to inflation, which means there are fewer dollars today to maintain, repair, or build new infrastructure projects. Peterson said the projects are often so expensive, the local tax base is unable to fund such projects. Peterson also cited a concern that the Trump administration has signaled they may reverse a traditional 20-80 funding split, meaning local government would have to come up with 80 percent of the cost of a project.
"Some of these infrastructure improvements when they're early enough at a reasonable cost, but if you wait 10, 12, 15 years the cost is three, four, five times that because the road or bridge is so badly deteriorated that it needs to be completely removed and replaced. By biting the bullet, and getting some of repairs done sooner rather than later, you're going to save a lot of money."
Illinois' Public Pensions Debt
On the state level, public pension funding is the $250 billion elephant in the room, but Peterson said no one is talking seriously about how to solve the problem.
"Lack of funding of our public pension system systems is a huge problem and it's growing every day and we need to solve it. We need to fix the problem. Yet there is complete paralysis in our state legislature," said Peterson. "They're not even talking about it. It's not even discussed because there are other probably maybe less critical problems that they can't even come to grips with, let alone, trying to solve the problems associated with public pensions."
Peterson said pension funding colors all state funding issues and as a result, funding from the state sent to the local level. School districts are now being asked to fund pensions. Other local funding is being withheld with little notice because the state needs it.
"That forces local governments to make those hard decisions. Are we going to cut expenses? Are we going to raise revenue? And frankly most local governments have been pretty responsible. They balance their budgets. They don't have the ability to go in with an unbalanced budget," said Peterson. "But what we're seeing out of the state government is, 'Hey we have not been able to effectively do our jobs. So we're going to we're going to force the tough decisions on you.'"
Peterson said the solution in Springfield is straightforward but difficult and painful: raise revenue, cut expenses, and do it over a number of years, maybe a decade.
For the most part, Peterson sees gridlock on the state and federal level. On the local level Peterson thinks elected officials are more willing to compromise because they're more accountable. But he's concerned the unwillingness to compromise is seeping into local government.
"I hear from colleagues throughout the country that they're seeing this extremism that's happening on the state and federal beginning to slowly infiltrate local governments. And I hear of situations where you do have gridlock at the local level as well because people have diverse ideological perspectives," said Peterson. "They just have an inability to work together to compromise and collaborate, but fortunately in central Illinois, particularly Bloomington-Normal, that has not been the case. And I think there's reason to be optimistic that that's going to continue here."
While Peterson is concerned a crisis of some sort will precipitate rushed and "brutal" financial decisions, he's also optimistic because "there are a number of very good legislators who truly want to work collaboratively across the aisle."
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