In Will County, the question on new public buildings could come to roofs or roads
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain firstname.lastname@example.org March 29, 2013 11:32PM
A view of the Will County Sheriff's Department Training Building Friday, March 29, 2013, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 1, 2013 3:51PM
JOLIET — The Will County Board is about to be faced with a buildings vs. roads dilemma.
Money is tight for county government, but $1 billion in county road needs and $441 million in building needs have been identified through recent studies.
Funding has been available for road projects in recent years because of a half-cent RTA sales tax that state lawmakers approved in 2008. The RTA gets half of the money collected, and collar counties get the other half. Some of that money could be used for buildings that are related to public safety.
Will County has not chosen to do that.
Will County Sheriff Paul Kaupas, however, thinks it’s time for the county to consider using the RTA money for buildings. Sheriff’s department officials have been complaining for years that their staff is spread over several overcrowded and antiquated sites.
On a tour last week designed to push the county board to do something, sheriff’s department buildings with strange smells, faulty air handling systems, anemic plumbing and asbestos-coated pipes were highlighted.
A recent $500,000 comprehensive study of county space needs, and a $427,000 follow-up study of the sheriff’s department in particular, proposed a $65 million law enforcement complex on county owned land at Laraway Road and Route 52.
The final law enforcement space needs report will be given to the Will County Board’s capital improvements committee meeting that starts at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the county office building at 302 N. Chicago St.
Kaupas said there is enough money in the RTA fund to get a start on law enforcement’s space crunch woes, which have been studied — at the cost of millions of dollars — and debated since the late 1990s with little action.
In 2002, former Will County Executive Joe Mikan and the county board commissioned a study that led to a proposed $45 million campus of buildings for the sheriff’s department, coroner and animal control. The plan never went anywhere, but it is very similar to the $65 million plan being proposed now for the same site off Laraway Road.
Kaupas said it’s time to act and there is nothing wrong with tapping into the RTA fund.
“I don’t think it’s going to hurt roads and bridges, they can still do both,” he said.
John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, said that would be a mistake because road improvements are vital for continued economic development in the county.
“We supported the RTA sales tax on the condition that the quarter cent went to the county and the caveat we put on our support was that all of that money be dedicated to transportation projects – period,” said Greuling, whose job it is to try to lure new businesses to the county.
Intermodals in Joliet and Elwood and international status as a port make Will County a desirable location for logistics and other transportation-related businesses, he added.
“We are hanging a lot of our future on transportation,” he said. “If we can’t maintain our existing transportation infrastructure and make timely investments in new transportation, we’re not going to be able to maintain our economic vitality as a county.”
When new businesses locate in Will County, they pay property taxes, which reduces the burden on homeowners, Greuling added.
“It’s not the salvation for everything, but it cures a lot,” he said.
Originally, the RTA sales tax law said collar counties could only use the money for roadwork. But DuPage County legislators successfully lobbied for an amendment that would allow the money to be used for public safety, too.
The RTA tax generates about $20 million a year for Will County. Of that amount, about $8.5 million goes to pay off $100 million in bonds sold for a $357 million Build Will program launched in 2008. The rest is banked for other road projects and there is about $45 million in the fund now, said Will County Finance Director Paul Rafac.
Nick Palmer, Will County Executive Larry Walsh’s chief of staff, said it is true that some county buildings are in deplorable shape. He cited the state’s attorney’s offices at 121 N. Chicago Street, the health department complex at 501 Ella Ave. and the metal training warehouse used by the sheriff’s department off Laraway Road as being the worst of the county’s more than 20 office locations.
But the executive’s office also believes in the importance of road projects, he added.
“We have an astronomical need for road improvements,” he said.
Only $100 million in bonds has been sold to pay for the $1 billion in needed road work, he said.
“We have a long way to go.”
If the RTA fund isn’t touched to upgrade county buildings, it’s not clear where money for county buildings, including a new courthouse that chief judges have been pushing for years, could come from.
“We have no identified funding stream for any large capital projects,” Rafac said of the building plan. “In order to do any of these projects it’s going to take a new revenue source, because (budget) cutting alone won’t do it.”
Paying for $441 million in building projects would require $20 to $35 million a year to pay off bonds, he added.
“We don’t have existing revenues to cover that,” he said.
It will be up to county officials to decide if the RTA fund is fair game, Palmer said.
“That’s a decision the board has to make,” Palmer said. “The RTA money was identified by the General Assembly specifically for transportation. That was the primary function of this money and that’s what we stand by.”