August 18, 2017

Final Alternative Futures forum discusses future with constrained resources

At the final Alternative Futures forum, panelists with experience in government, nonprofit work, and the private sector shared ideas about how the region can continue to provide residents with necessary and desired services in a future where federal and state resources are further constrained.

About 125 people attended the event, "Doing More with Less in 2050," held at the Libertyville Civic Center on August 15.  The panel was moderated by Kerry Lester, columnist and senior writer at the Daily Herald, and included John S. Gates Jr., chairman and CEO of PoraeCo, LLC.; Leon Rockingham, Mayor of North Chicago; Megan McKenna, executive director of Mano a Mano Resource Center; and Paula Wolff, director of the Illinois Justice Project.

Glenn Ryback, mayor of Wadsworth and vice-president of the Lake County Municipal League -- a sponsor of the forum, along with the Northwest Municipal Conference and the McHenry Council of Governments -- welcomed the crowd. CMAP executive director Joe Szabo laid the groundwork for the panel by discussing the need for governmental collaboration throughout the Chicago region.

"Governments will need to develop new revenue sources and adopt creative solutions.  Nonprofits and the private sector have a role to play, as well," Szabo said.  "Disinvested areas, which already struggle to meet needs, are likely to suffer even more due to their limited tax base and shortage of economic opportunities.  How can we ensure all communities can continue to be successful?"

Less services or more revenues?

As government agencies face increasingly difficult decisions in a future with constrained resources, panelists said the answer is not as simple as cutting services or adding more revenues.

"It's got to be a balance," Rockingham said.  "You have to be as transparent as possible with your community and let them know what you're going to do with those dollars."

In the wake of recent state and local battles over income tax and the Cook County soda tax, Gates said government leaders are facing an uphill battle asking their constituents to pay more taxes.

"It's going to be very, very hard to get anything passed," he said.

Gates warned that as costs for healthcare and entitlement programs continue to rise, even newly created revenues may be scooped up to pay for those programs, leaving other programs constrained.

McKenna warned that the conversation about service cuts needs to focus on who will be hurt the most in an already economically stratified region.

"Take a look at the past couple years of budget impasse and who bore the brunt of not having a budget.  I would argue that is was health and human services," she said.  "We see how it affects people in their day-to-day life. If you continue to tax people who are already on the brink of losing their home, it becomes a spiral."

She added that those issues are magnified by trends that show the suburbanization of poverty and declining state and federal aid for nonprofits, which are expected to pick up the slack when governments cut services.

Working together for solutions

While leaders of municipalities around the region can agree on the problems facing governmental bottom lines from now through 2050, they also agree that finding solutions is more difficult, but not impossible.

"Consolidation and shared services make a lot of sense, but it's very hard to do," Wolff said, recounting examples from her decades of public service where different leaders have tried to work together.

"Mayors and leaders in those communities have to be the ones, and CMAP is a perfect example of this at a regional level, to lead the way by showing how effective it can be to share services, to define problems, and solve problems together," Wolff said.  "It's about political will.  It's not because we don't know how to do this."

Panelists discussed the various types of entities that could be combined across jurisdictions to help save money, such as consolidating park districts, fire departments, dispatch centers, and public works operations.

"Illinois has more units of government than any other state," Gates said.  "That just begs for thoughts about consolidation."

Spending fewer dollars more efficiently

In a future with constrained resources, panelists said municipalities and government agencies will have to make even smarter decisions about how money is spent.

Wolff, who is now working for an organization striving to reform the Illinois criminal justice system, said the state needs to stop spending money on systems that are not working.

McKenna agreed that communities will need to prioritize spending in new ways.

"Whether revenues go up or down, it's about using the money we do have more efficiently and more effectively," she said.

Wolff added that since the year 2050 is still more than 30 years away, we don't have to accept the premise that resources will be further constrained.  She encouraged the audience to ask their elected officials difficult questions about tax policy and equitable distribution of resources now, before it is too late.

What's next?

This was the final forum in the Alternative Futures series, but there are still ways to give feedback through August by taking a survey on each of the five futures.  If you missed "Doing More with Less in 2050," you can listen to an audio recording of the forum.