New DuPage Co. budget balanced, but some say it's not enough

Published: 11/26/2008 12:03 AM

No one uttered the word "doomsday" this year.

But despite some mixed reviews, DuPage County's 2009 budget still passed Tuesday.

In a 12-to-5 vote, the board approved Chairman Robert Schillerstrom's $481 million spending plan that while balanced, wasn't fiscally conservative enough for a third of the members.

The good news is DuPage County spent $10 million less and made $1 million more last year than anticipated. It has lots of money in cash reserves ­- some $38 million - its highest level in a decade.

But sales tax projections, about $87 million for 2009, aren't as strong as planners once hoped because of the dismal economy. Some board members were leery of supporting the part of the budget that relates to the chairman's ambitious five-year DuPage 2013 program.

DuPage 2013 calls for the county to spend $160 million on road projects, $42 million on facility improvements and $15 million on information-technology upgrades during a five-year span. It would take 25 years to pay off the program's debt at a cost of about $300 million with interest.

The 2009 budget includes $7.5 million for one-time projects, such as the new Eola Road interchange at I-88 in Aurora.

But it also includes about $21 million for possible spending and debt repayment next year if the county borrows money toward DuPage 2013.

And therein lies the problem for many who voted "no" Tuesday.

"I don't think we know enough about the future of the economy to make this kind of a commitment today," said county board member Grant Eckhoff of Wheaton.

The other board members who opposed the budget are: JR McBride of Glen Ellyn; Jeff Redick of Elmhurst; Brien Sheahan of Elmhurst and James Healy of Naperville.

Schillerstrom said the county wouldn't begin the ambitious borrowing plan if the economy continues to decline and interest rates aren't lower. Rather, this budget merely sets up some early framework should that happen. A board vote would be needed. "I think we're very well situated if the economy continues to go down," Schillerstrom said. "We have substantial cash reserves. We have a debt-service fund that can act as a hedge. And, of course, we could always cut our spending midyear. Obviously, these are unsettling times and we have to be vigilant and we will be."

The 2009 budget includes lots of good news.

Unlike this time last year, where widespread layoffs and program cuts were feared, county employees and services for the poor actually will see quite a bump.

Both prosecutors and deputy sheriffs are receiving in some cases double-digit raises to make up for salary inequities in comparison to neighboring counties. Other county employees are getting 1.5 percent hikes and they're eligible for additional merit increases, too. And the county is absorbing higher health-care costs for its employees.

Other highlights include $1 million for nonprofit agencies, which is a 50-percent increase over last year's spending; $300,000 to bolster area food pantries; $4.5 million for flood control; and $2 million for increased public transportation access throughout DuPage County.

The new fiscal year begins Monday.