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Local News

Will County Board debate heats up over use of road fund for courthouse

JOLIET – In an act that may have set the political stage for a larger debate later this year during budget talks, Will County Board member Cory Singer, R-Frankfort, came out swinging Thursday against others’ desire to use money from the county’s regional transportation tax to help build a new courthouse and for other capital projects.

Using road funds to help pay for critical public safety projects is increasingly becoming a controversial issue on the board.

Up for a vote was whether to allow the execution of a $1.2 million contract with the Chicago-based DLR Group to conduct design and engineering plans for a new Laraway Road sheriff’s facility.

It’s undetermined whether RTA funds will pay for the DLR contract, but Singer said he’s concerned about dedicating that revenue stream to construct the new facility – estimated at about $16 million.

“I want to be clear. The sheriff’s department really needs a new facility,” Singer said.

“But I do believe that our transportation need is so significant that we should absolutely pause and take time to develop a formal policy on how we’re going to invest RTA funds going forward,” he continued.

The vote was 21-4, with Singer; Bob Howard, D-Beecher; Kenneth Harris, D-Bolingbrook; and Mark Ferry, D-Plainfield, voting no. With the same argument, Singer was the lone vote on a resolution allowing for the execution of a contract agreement with a construction manager at-risk for the same project.

Others, including County Board member Steve Balich, R-Homer Glen, disagreed, noting the present courthouse and the sheriff’s facility are “unsafe” and should be prioritized over roads.

“What good is a beautiful road if you get the building and the ceiling falls on you?” Balich said.

Republicans in recent months have driven discussion about the use of RTA sales tax for capital projects.

Earlier this month, a Republican-led committee pushed forward a plan that diverts about 25 percent of RTA funds – or $6 million annually – to help pay off bonds associated with the courthouse, which will carry a price tag of $140 million to $200 million.

But the item was taken off the County Board’s agenda before Thursday’s meeting to “allow for additional discussion,” said County Board Speaker Jim Moustis, R-Frankfort.

Moustis argued opponents should offer alternatives.

“If you say you want it, but yet you’re not willing to offer funding sources, do you really support it?” Moustis said. “No. Otherwise you would be part of the solution in trying to find a revenue source.”

After the meeting, Nick Palmer, chief of staff for Will County Executive Larry Walsh Sr., said Walsh is willing to consider a public safety sales tax referendum.

It’s a fair consideration because it gives taxpayers a voice rather than the County Board diverting dollars from much-needed road projects, which residents also care about, Palmer said.

“A public safety tax has been talked about for years, but nobody wants to chase that,” Palmer said. “That would involve going to the voters beforehand and asking permission. ... If they say no, that’s a [revenue source] we can check off.”

County officials have pegged the First Midwest Bank site at Ottawa and Jefferson streets, which the county bought last year, as a potential location for a new courthouse.

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