ROCKFORD — The Winnebago County Board's decision Tuesday to give Loves Park a $1.7 million subsidy for roads to support Costco and related retail development on East Riverside Boulevard might not be the last word on the matter.
It's within Frank Haney's power as County Board chairman to ask the board to reconsider giving Loves Park cash from the county's host fee fund — money spent on economic development projects that the county generates by charging fees to garbage haulers who dump trash at the privately owned Winnebago Landfill.
It's not clear if Haney will ask the board to reconsider its vote — he declined to comment to the Register Star this week.
Even so, some board members are having second thoughts about their decision, especially since Waste Connections — the Houston, Texas-based company that owns the landfill — claims that it has overpaid the county some $3.3 million in host fees over the last decade.
“The owners of the landfill looked at the payments they made to the county for last quarter and noticed it included payments for waste that was exempt under the agreement that we have in place with them,” said Deputy State's Attorney Dave Kurlinkus, who attended a meeting among county and landfill officials on Nov. 16.
“They've provided us a spreadsheet showing all the payments they've made,” he said. “The county is going to look at all of this. We're not just going to take everything at face value.”
It may take the county weeks or longer to sort out the validity of Waste Connections' claim. Regardless, Haney warned the board before it made its decision Tuesday that a refund may be necessary and that the county should be careful not to overspend the one revenue stream it has to incentivize economic development.
“It's highly disappointing that we're writing checks we may not have the money to cash,” said David Boomer, a South Beloit Republican who voted against the Loves Park subsidy.Behind the scenes
Boomer's role as majority leader includes rounding up the necessary votes for agenda items before they hit the County Board floor. The Loves Park deal seemed like a bad one on its face, he said.
For months, Loves Park Mayor Greg Jury and other city officials have pressed the county to join the city in subsidizing development of a Costco store that would anchor a much larger retail development in the 7900 block of East Riverside Boulevard. Haney declined the city's requests, publicly stating that the county should not subsidize retail development because new stores tend to cannibalize existing retail business and jobs in the region.
On Oct. 15, after Haney had made several public overtures of that sort, Loves Park aldermen approved more than $11 million worth of municipal sales tax rebates with Costco and Spring Creek Development to ensure the retail project would move forward. Extending enough city incentives to close the deal seemed to indicate that Loves Park officials had given up hope that Haney would change his mind. But they hadn't given up. City officials simply redirected their efforts toward County Board members.
Joe Hoffman, a County Board Democrat whose district comprises much of southeast Rockford, said he voted for the subsidy after being lobbied by Jury; Gino Galluzzo, the city's attorney; and fellow board members Bert Gerl, a Democrat whose district includes part of Rockford and Gary Jury, a Republican whose district includes part of Loves Park. Convincing arguments were made by all, said Hoffman, who admitted much of his attention was occupied by another matter on the agenda Tuesday night — the nomination of Judge Rosemary Collins to fill the soon-to-be-vacant state's attorney's job.
Haney nominated Collins over the objection County Board Democrats who supported Marilyn Hite Ross, who runs the criminal division of the state's attorney's office. The board approved Hite Ross for the job on Tuesday — after Collins' nomination failed to win enough support. Then the County Board turned its attention to the Loves Park subsidy.
"I heard from people around me, including Gino, that this was probably a pretty good project worth spending money on," Hoffman said. "And we've probably done much worse, let me put it that way ... I got to be honest with you, I'm not up to date on this one. I had my hands full with the state's attorney nomination. Gino Galluzzo came to us and said a lot of things to us and it made a lot of sense.”
As chairman, Haney has the power to ask the board to reconsider any vote it casts within 15 days. The board must then reconsider the matter at its next meeting to be held within 30 business days of its receipt of the chairman's objections.
"If it comes back before the board — I wish it would so I could take a harder look at it," Hoffman said.
Timing may be a factor in Haney's decision. The composition of the County Board will change Dec. 3 when four newly elected members are sworn in. Three of those newcomers will replace board members who voted in favor of the Loves Park subsidy.'A travesty'
Board member Dan Fellars, whose 19th District straddles the Rock River within the city of Rockford, voted against the Loves Park subsidy. Before that, he proposed that the vote be postponed, but there was no support for that either. The county's host fee money is meant to be used as a financial incentive for economic development, but that's not what this deal was about, he said.
“I would argue that it was about political expediency,” he said. “If you read the resolution, it says the county doesn't deliver that first check to Loves Park until April. We've got plenty of time to make a decision on this. Loves Park is going to start spending money on those roads tomorrow without any money from the county.”
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said he was disappointed in the board's decision. More than half of the County Board's 20 members represent parts of Rockford. The mayor said "it makes no sense" for any board member who represents Rockford to favor subsidies for retail development that will compete with Rockford business and drain sales tax revenue from the city's coffers.
“I can’t think of one person who can provide a logical statement to that," McNamara said.
Approval of the Loves Park subsidy "was a travesty. It wasn't a good night for the community," said County Board member Jean Crosby, who represents northeast Rockford. Crosby said a dozen constituents called her as soon as the proposal landed on the County Board agenda "and none of them said they were for this."
“I think $1.7 million — that's a lot of money, and we don't know where the host fee fund is at right now. And before we do anything, we need to get our bearings straight. That's why I voted against it. But there was some heavy lobbying done by some board members and the mayor of Loves Park and their law firm.”
None of that lobbying was directed at her, she said.
“They don't bother,” Crosby said. “Because they know I can't be flipped.”
Isaac Guerrero: 815-987-1361; firstname.lastname@example.org; @isaac_rrs