ROCKFORD — Surpluses accumulated over consecutive years could buy the city of Rockford time to navigate the brewing potential financial crisis posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
With businesses shuttered or crippled by shelter-in-place orders, city officials are bracing for unknown but potentially dire revenue losses this year. Sales taxes that make up roughly a quarter of city general fund revenue could take a significant hit and rising unemployment could mean far less than expected in income tax collections.
Alderman Frank Beach, R-10, said the city had worked hard to prepare a multiyear budget forecast that anticipated hard financial times even before the menace of COVID-19. Beach said he is confident the city will come up with solutions to deal with any revenue losses, but much remains unknown about how bad it will be.
"We have to be ready to act, move and make decisions to keep things afloat and I think we have the will and capability to do that," Beach said. "Until we get a handle on the numbers, it's hard to make those kind of predictions. The cushion that we have doesn't take pressure off, but it gives a little more room to think, discuss and come up with better plans."
Although subject to revision following an annual audit, year-end financial reports show the city of Rockford ended 2019 with a $3.5 million surplus. That comes after a $3.6 million surplus in 2018.
Those surpluses have contributed to an estimated $37.7 million "rainy day" fund.
And Finance Director Carrie Hagerty said there is surely rain in the forecast.
Since April sales tax numbers won't be known until June, Hagerty said it is difficult to know how hard city finances will be hit this year. With more sales tax revenue being collected from online purchases, it is possible the blow will be softened a bit.
Hagerty said midyear cuts akin to actions the city was forced to take during the Great Recession are possible. But the city's relatively strong financial position should give it time to make needed adjustments.
"This is really the type of situation that fund balances are designed for," Hagerty said. "Temporary — or what might end up being a permanent — changes in our financial situation, to let us weather it or give us time to make wise and reasonable decisions about how we are going to change our operations."
Jeff Kolkey: email@example.com; @jeffkolkey