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McLean County Financial Outlook Steady, But Future Less Certain

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Eric Stock
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WGLT
File: McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre presided over a virtual County Board meeting at the Government Center in November

McLean County government leaders present a confident budget outlook for 2021, but say it’s uncertain how COVID-19 could impact financial health in the coming years.

McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre and County Administrator Camille Rodriguez delivered their State of the County presentation to the McLean County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

They painted a stable picture for the budget year that started Jan. 1, and laid out hopes and concerns for the next spending plan administrators will soon turn their attention toward.

McIntyre said previous conservative spending plans allowed the county to make it through the first year of the pandemic relatively unscathed.

McIntyre said core services take top priority when allocating county funds, but there also are additional projects worth investing in.

“Our goal, like for many organizations, is to have any non-required, non-mandated budget category be sustainable — self sustainable. That's a very difficult thing to do,” McIntyre said. “Ultimately, sometimes it comes down to us having to put money into some things. And the decision has to be made as we go through our very tight budgeting process, how much we can allocate to sustain these quality-of-life systems?”

One asset worth supporting is the McLean County Nursing Home, he said.

The county-run nursing home has faced significant financial challenges, as the majority of patients it serves are covered by Medicaid and the state has fallen back on those payments for a while. But with the help of an advisory committee and dollars through the federal CARES Act, McIntyre said the situation is on an upswing.

McIntyre said the county will continue to invest in the facility in north Normal, as well as renovation of the old Fairview Building next door into affordable senior housing. Other projects the county has allocated funding for this fiscal year include upgrades to the sanitation systems at Comlara Park, upkeep of the McLean County Museum of History, and expansion or relocation of the county-run animal shelter.

There also are rural development initiatives. McIntyre said the biggest projects will be road repairs and maintenance that will be funded by the recently-increased motor fuel tax.

The county will need to weigh a possible new wind energy field proposed in southeastern McLean County. McIntyre said the field would be located north of Route 136 near Bellflower. If that is to come to fruition, he said, it would benefit three school districts: Ridgeview, Blue Ridge, and LeRoy.

Rodriguez explained it’s still unclear how the state’s finances will impact county government.

She said revenue in McLean County has been hindered by recent legislation, particularly in areas of criminal justice reform. She cited the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act that restructured court fines and fees structures in Illinois. It took effect two years ago and was aimed at reducing the burden on justice involving low-income earners.

“Revenue does come into county government from fines and fees in the criminal justice arena, and this act was one of those that hurt a lot in county government because it reduced the amount of fines and fees that we are able to collect,” Roderiguez said. “We have yet to see the complete impact of this act on our budget. But it's already been felt.”

Rodriguez said that burden will be compounded by the SAFE-T Act that Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law last month. The measure eliminates the use of cash bail by 2025.

Rodriguez said those reforms may or may not impact services, but do deal a blow to the county's general fund while also creating unfunded mandates.

Rodriguez said she’s hopeful other revenue will come through new developments like wind or solar farms and new companies brought in by the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.

She said cannabis tax revenue also has given the county some padding. The county collects 3% sales tax on dispensary sales in Bloomington-Normal. To date, she said, that revenue has added up to about $153,000.

Rodriguez said the biggest expenditure for the county continues to be public safety, followed closely by highway services.

She said the large chunk of public safety spending doesn’t just go to police — it also goes toward specialty courts, like drug court and veterans court, as well as the Mental Health Triage Center. These programs are aimed at keeping people out of the county jail that Rodriguez said has financial benefits for the community.

For example, she sayid the veterans court program has an 84% successful completion rate with no participants re-offending. Rodriguez said that’s added up to a savings value of more than $432,000 since the program started in 2018.

“That is where a lot of our efforts go, to keep people out of our criminal justice system and to provide support and care and kindness to those who need it most,” she said.

Rodriguez also urged patience as the McLean County Health Department tries to make COVID-19 vaccines available to more people. She said the logistics of getting shots in the arm of all 172,000 county residents are a challenge, but officials are  optimistic it can be done.

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