JOLIET — Will County needs to maintain momentum as necessary capital projects move forward in the coming year, County Executive Larry Walsh Sr. said Thursday as part of his annual State of the County address.
But Walsh, a Democrat, cautioned that those projects must not jeopardize other critical areas of the budget, such as the county's road fund — a revenue source targeted by some Republican board members in recent months to help pay for a new courthouse and other capital undertakings.
“The key question remains, how to pay for a new courthouse? Simply put, we cannot spend money we do not have,” Walsh said. “We must have a dedicated funding source to pay for the bonds without cutting funds for other critical areas of our county budget.”
He said many of the county's successful infrastructure and road improvements in the last 10 years are largely due to the availability of RTA sales tax dollars. The county has spent about $27 million annually over the last five years to maintain stressed roads and bridges, he said.
The board plans to consider a bond issuance this fall to help pay for a new courthouse estimated to cost between $140 million and $200 million. But some board members say the district will have to dip into other revenue sources — including as much as $5 million, or about 20 percent, of the county's RTA fund each year — to pay back the bonds over time.
Board member Mike Fricilone, R-Homer Glen, first suggested the use of RTA funds earlier this year. Other sources could include $1.5 million from a recently-enacted court user fee and another $2.4 million from a property tax increase approved during the previous year’s budget cycle.
“Walsh has his views. And I think we can come together with an agreement,” Fricilone said. “But I think everyone knows on both sides of the aisle that the buildings that we have proposed, the sheriff's facility and the courthouse, are needed. There may be some difference on how to do it but we know we have to do it.”
County officials also hope to reach a deal with the city of Joliet on ways the city can contribute to the project. An announcement is expected Friday about a tentative deal, but city officials have made it clear they can't afford the $50 million the county initially requested.
Will County Board member Ragan Freitag, R-Wilmington, said Thursday she agrees with Walsh that the county needs to be conservative in financing projects, but said prioritizing is also key.
“It's about balancing between capital improvements and our road projects,” she said. “We're trying to find a happy medium.”
Board member Cory Singer, R-Frankfort, who unsuccessfully ran against Walsh in 2012, said he doesn't agree with Walsh on all things, but they certainly see eye-to-eye on protecting RTA funds.
The county should avoid depleting the road fund, he said, even if it means scaling back courthouse plans.
“I'm not convinced that, given all of the road improvement needs that we have, plus our facilities needs, building a $150 million to $200 million courthouse is feasible,” Singer said. “RTA funds can only be stretched so far before we deplete it and [risk losing] a respectable highway improvement program. It should be kept whole.”
In his speech, Walsh also highlighted the county's job growth, improved unemployment rate and healthy AA+ bond rating. The county's job growth rate is higher than neighboring DuPage and Grundy counties, he said.