THE ISSUE: County considers scrapping auditor’s office
OUR VIEW: Any path toward cost savings will require a major change on Etna Road
The lion’s share of any government budget is payroll — the salary and benefits required for the people who carry out daily business of keeping various departments up and running.
Sure, there are major infrastructure costs. Sewer plants aren’t cheap these days, and have you tried running a jail lately? But by and large, you have to pay people to do the work. Every year it costs a little bit more for them to get by, and every year it costs a little bit more to belong to a health insurance pool. Buying a new squad car or copy machine or repaving the parking lot can wait if it must, acknowledging the cost will only increase going forward, but the people have to be paid.
Unless, of course, the jobs those people do can be considered nonessential. Or if the work can be shuffled onto other workers in other departments. Then, when times are tight, perhaps a few employees can be shed. Maybe someone retires and doesn’t get replaced, but mostly these savings are realized by sitting someone down and telling them they’re no longer needed.
Last week the La Salle County Board’s Finance Committee brainstormed ideas to stave off a $1.5 million deficit in next year’s operating budget. Board Chairman Jerry Hicks, D-Marseilles, even used the phrase “stop the bleeding,” which pretty much never has a positive connotation, except that it beats a hemorrhage.
Board members put real numbers on the table. Hicks said to save $450,000 the county would have to cut 10 employees earning $30,000 per year and costing the county $15,000 in benefits. At that rate, covering the entire deficit in layoffs alone would require eliminating more than 33 jobs.
Finance Committee Chairman Douglas Trager, D-Ottawa, said the board has historically treated union and non-union employees the same when it comes to pay and benefits, but suggested that stance may have to change.
Hicks proposed eliminating the auditor’s office altogether in favor of a finance department directly under the board. He said the Grundy County treasurer essentially manages the auditing. The suggestion isn’t a direct analogy to state-level discussions about merging the offices of treasurer and comptroller, but the general principles are the same: considering if modern efficiencies might allow for a streamlined government, provided it doesn’t come at the cost of essential checks and balances.
We generally support efforts to make government more efficient as a means of respecting the contributions of taxpayers. Sometimes that puts us in the position of advocating for people to lose their jobs. That’s not to be meant as a personal attack, just an acknowledgement that sometimes the greater good involves doing more with less. Private businesses consistently seek out these efficiencies in order to maintain profit margins and remain competitive. Government ought to do the same to balance its budget, difficult as those conversations might be.
Yet it must be noted that government is not in the business of profit or competition. Government provides services that are best done without profit in mind, but rather a focus on broad access, fairness, trust and expedience. And this is why elected officials are put in place to make these difficult decisions, because they are accountable for those choices at the ballot box.
In the specific case of eliminating an entire department and elected office, the only thing those board members can do is put the issue before the people by means of public referendum. If enough members want to do so by Jan. 14, the matter could land on the April 2 ballot.
We salute the Finance Committee for considering all its options, and reserve judgement on the consolidation plan until we know whether the committee actually thinks it’s feasible. From that point the idea can be evaluated on its merits. But whether the committee chooses that path or another, voters and taxpayers ought to expect some sort of drastic change if the board is serious about slashing expenses.
And yes, that means people are likely to lose jobs. That’s how governments save money. It isn’t pleasant, but neither is having tax rates so high no one can afford to pay them. Finding the happy medium is the difficult job of elected officials, and we hope they’re up to the task.