The Rockford region’s new leaders have bold ideas for moving our region forward. But can they exorcise the ghosts of our past and rise beyond the challenges of today?
Newly elected leaders have their work cut out for them. They walk in with big ideas and bold promises, but circumstances can look much different in the corner office.
Over the past few years, Rockfordians have welcomed new leaders who are entering office at a not inconsequential time.
Economic growth is returning to Rockford, with an estimated $2 billion in capital investments made over the past five years. Growth has hit all sectors. Unemployment rates have returned to pre-recession lows and businesses continue to grow. Promising new projects gleam on the horizon.
Rockford’s come a long way, but it’s still struggling to overcome the demons of its past. High property tax rates, low property values and ever-rising state income taxes are crushing businesses and citizens. Violent crimes, property crimes and shootings remain stubbornly high.
Springfield remains unhelpful, at best, as decades of mismanagement hold hostage the state’s path to prosperity. Washington is sitting on its hands as it deals with a quagmire of issues, from health insurance and regulation to taxes and immigration.
If all politics really is local, then it’s up to our region’s new leaders to create their own solutions.
This is a look at where Frank Haney, Winnebago County Chairman; Gary Caruana, county sheriff; Tom McNamara, mayor of Rockford; and Dan O’Shea, Rockford police chief, hope to steer their respective departments, and how they plan to address the obstacles that threaten to derail Rockford’s positive progress.
Haney’s top priority is renewing trust in government. Inspired by turnaround initiatives happening in DuPage County, Ill., Haney hopes his ACT Initiative – which stands for accountability, collaboration, trust – will set a new paradigm for County management. Sustainable financing, efficient processes, and improved communication with citizens come top of mind.
“It’s been said that if Abraham Lincoln were still alive, he’d recognize parts of county government. That’s a problem,” says Haney. “Think about the private sector. Nothing stays the same. It’s in constant change. It’s OK for government to, once in a while, turn over a rock and say, ‘Hey, is this what we should be doing?’”
Those conversations are difficult, he adds, and even though they often devolve into political sparring matches, Haney welcomes open-minded discussions that reach a common goal.
“The opportunities ahead of us are not easy to achieve and the problems, if they were easy to solve, would have been solved long ago,” he says. “This is the challenge of the moment. We need good partners, we need to talk through our problems, and we can’t duck the tough issues. We need to have tough discussions where our politics does not get reduced to the idea that 1 percent disagreement makes you 100 percent enemies. That’s not how things get done.”
In the corner office on the eighth floor of City Hall, McNamara is also trying to change paradigms, starting with public communications. Not only is he trying to share more positive stories, but he’s trying to connect with area influencers, in the hopes that they can broaden dialogue throughout the region. Since the fall, he’s been visiting at least two local companies a week and engaging local business leaders in advisory committees.
“It gives you a fresh set of information from really smart people,” he says. “But it’s also the tangential things that these people are connected to in the community. They’re out at a cocktail party and someone says, ‘Can you believe they’re doing this? Why are they putting money into Barber-Colman and not putting more police on the streets?’ Now this leader can say, ‘Jim, you know these funds can’t be used for police or fire. They can only be used for economic development or tourism.’”
Long before Caruana entered the sheriff’s office in 2015, he set his sights on the department’s culture. A former sheriff’s deputy and longtime corporate security manager for UPS, Caruana has used his past experiences to build positive morale in his department.
Caruana encourages staff to think as a team and shed the “us versus them” mentality. He’s also launched focus groups where employees can share concerns and offer feedback, on small matters like a new microwave in the break room or something more meaningful, like work hours.
Describing himself as a mentor to every person in his department, Caruana holds an open door policy with his staff, and he encourages his deputy chiefs to do the same.
“I want to be one-on-one, and if I’m riding along with someone, I want to get to know them and their struggles,” he says. “And they get to know me, and they see that I’m not sitting in an ivory tower – and I never have.”
Crime & Safety
If you didn’t know any better, you might not recognize you’re talking with the chief of police when you run into Dan O’Shea. Clad in the standard blue officer’s uniform, and stationed in the department’s District Three office on Rockford’s east side, he at first appears to be just part of the crew. Don’t be deceived – it’s part of his strategy to build relationships with his team and the public.
Since joining the department in April 2016, O’Shea has introduced a radical new mindset. Often called focused deterrence, his approach breaks down to three points: Build alliances with ordinary citizens, attack crime at its root cause and remove the most violent offenders. None of these is particularly easy or likely to generate immediate results. His is a strategy for the long term.
“We can’t do anything with 300 officers unless we have 140,000-plus people in the city who are helping us,” says O’Shea. “So, every officer, every day, their job is to make positive community contacts, no matter what division they’re in.”
O’Shea is making an especially strong push to build relationships with area youth, believing that if they and their parents trust the police, they’re more likely to report crimes when or before they happen. Caruana is taking a similar approach.
“When the community trusts the police, the bad guys won’t be welcomed,” says O’Shea. “Citizens will be calling the police saying, ‘Dan O’Shea is the bad guy on the block. He lives right down there and he has the drugs and guns.’ When the public is comfortable and safe with the police, we all win.”
O’Shea encourages officers to focus on the quality, rather than the quantity, of tickets. He’s less concerned about officers getting easy tickets than he is about addressing crimes, complaints and traffic crashes. He believes it’s smaller deterrents, like hefty fines for holding drug paraphernalia, that hit crime at its roots.
“We’re not in the cash-generating business,” he says. “Policing is supposed to be public service, resolving problems, preventing crimes and arresting bad, bad people – not just generating numbers to generate numbers. That’s 1980s thinking, if you will.”
In his pursuit of new relationships, O’Shea is investing in a callback program where volunteers are bolstering communication between the public and the police. Perhaps your car was broken into, but there’s no evidence and no witness. The police write a report but there’s too little information to solve the case. A few weeks later, you get a call from a police volunteer. Do you have any new information, the volunteer asks. If not, we don’t have anything to go on, so we’ll make this an inactive case.
“Do you feel better about that, or knowing that it’s been three months, and you haven’t heard anything,” says O’Shea. “It’s another positive experience.”
A new resident officer program adds yet another means of building positive relationships. Through a partnership with local housing authorities and utility companies, two Rockford officers have been stationed in no-mortgage housing within troubled neighborhoods.
Their job is to partner with neighbors and respond quickly to crimes, but they’re also tasked with addressing the issues that cause repeat offenses. Now, they can use legal tools like code enforcement, housing authority rules and social services to reduce the number of police calls to a given area.
“The officers won’t just go to a call, and go back five times a week to that same call,” O’Shea says. “Now, the officer says, ‘Wait a minute. Instead of me coming back tonight, let’s deal with the domestic violence situation or the alcoholism.’”
O’Shea is a big believer in other diversionary tactics, as well. He says he’s less concerned with the repeat marijuana smoker than with identifying whoever supplied it to him. O’Shea says he fully supports special drug courts, mental health courts and veterans courts that redirect offenders from jail into treatment services.
When it comes to violent offenders, though, O’Shea draws a clear line. Change your ways, or we’re coming after you, he says.
Through October, Rockford police recorded 517 counts of shots fired, 133 victims struck by gunfire and a total of more than 2,100 violent crimes. Throughout 2016, the city recorded 555 shots fired, 161 gunshot victims and more than 2,200 violent crimes.
O’Shea has noticed some of the same individuals tend to appear whenever a shooting happens, so the department is focusing attention on 50 individuals who are believed most likely to be shot, be near someone who’s shot, or commit a shooting.
“How do you get rid of it? You work with the community, get people to give up information so we can go arrest these people and put them in jail, and then they’re not running around shooting each other,” says O’Shea.
McNamara also wants to address domestic violence, which he says accounts for nearly a third of the city’s violent crimes and consumed about $1.2 million of police time in 2016. His new Office of Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking, approved in early November, is charged with reducing domestic violence through programming and increased awareness.
“I have 287 officers, and how can I best use them to tackle crime?” says McNamara. “It’s not sending two or three of them to the same house, 15 times in a row, because Jimmy and Suzie can’t get along.”
Caruana believes in the value of relationships, and he and his deputies are adopting many of the same community engagement tactics as O’Shea. But this network-building approach is about more than uniting police and citizens, Caruana says.
Neighborhood watch groups and other community organizations provide a valuable forum for solving minor issues and sharing information about suspicious activity. His deputies train church groups, neighborhood forums and other groups in the art of situational awareness – identifying potential problems and reporting them.
“It’s triggering that question deep down in your mind and making yourself aware enough to take a closer look,” he says. “I’m going to pick up the phone and call my neighbor, ask them if they’re on vacation because something’s going on at their house. Then, I get a license plate number, a make and model, and call the police.”
Property Taxes & Budgets
Ask any homeowner around Rockford about property taxes and they’ll tell you taxes are too high. Our new leaders feel the same, and that’s why they say they’re working on ways to reduce the burden on local taxpayers. Doing so, of course, isn’t easy.
Big picture, property taxes are determined by a formula:
Levy = Tax Rate x Equalized Assessed Value
The levy is equal to a particular taxing body’s desired budget. The Equalized Assessed Value is what a township assessor says your property is worth. When property values go down, tax rate goes up. In tax year 2016, a Rockford property owner was taxed at 15.105 percent. That’s 500 percent of what it was in 1960, when a property owner paid just 3.006 percent.
Winnebago County has more than 160 taxing bodies on its books, namely townships, municipalities, libraries, fire departments, schools, parks, sewer systems and TIFs. Springfield also takes a growing cut.
“Springfield has added almost $3 million to our deficit since I’ve been mayor,” says McNamara, who estimates he faces a $78 million budget deficit over the next five years because of this recent legislative change.
The problem isn’t just Springfield skimming off local revenue. It’s state laws that create additional costs without compensation. McNamara points to laws that prevent city ambulances from charging for lift assistance at senior homes.
“The city doesn’t need to make money from that,” says McNamara. “We simply need to cover our costs.”
The County, meanwhile, is filling a $7 million hole in its 2018 budget, in part because of an additional $2.3 million the state has skimmed off. Big cuts are difficult, says Haney, but they’re essential to protecting the region’s future financial stability.
“We have to put ourselves on a path so that two, five, seven years from now we’re in a condition to deliver on our mission and serve our community,” he says.
Balancing cuts and services is no small task for Caruana, whose department just took a $4.3 million slashing. Since the cuts were approved this fall, Caruana’s dropped special task forces and reassigned personnel for courthouse security. He’s disappointed in the results, but says it’s time to think strategically, just as any responsible business would do.
“I’m not paying a stockholder, but I do want to be as efficient as I can be for taxpayers,” he says. “However, I’m curious how the County’s analysis showed it was appropriate to cut $4.3 million from public safety. Do they realize how devastating it can be to the community?”
One way Caruana is addressing financial pressures is implementing efficiencies, led in part by a Quality Process Review (QPR) launched early in his tenure. A strategic plan for each of the sheriff’s departments, this QPR sets specific goals and metrics for success. Caruana’s deputy chiefs review their QPRs weekly.
O’Shea, meanwhile, is optimistic about the ways technology can maximize police work. License plate scanners, stationed at intersections and aboard police cruisers, scan at least 35,000 to 40,000 plates every month, searching for warranted and unlicensed drivers as well as criminal actors.
“When I get a warrant for Dan O’Shea and detectives go through the intel, they’ll see that Dan O’Shea’s car was at 123 Main Street at 2 a.m. the past six nights,” O’Shea explains. “So then we’ll say, ‘Let’s go get him.’ Or, we might know that car was at the scene 10 minutes before a shooting.”
In addition to technology, O’Shea sees opportunities for civilians to occupy certain positions on the force, allowing sworn officers to invest their time in more pressing matters, like shootings, which can occupy as many as a dozen officers for several man-hours.
As our new leaders maximize efficiencies, they’re also looking for ways to reduce duplications through strategic collaborations. In some cases, collaboration may be as simple as lending a City-owned backhoe to a County crew, or reassigning duplicative tasks in County administration. Haney says there’s been discussion about combining the county clerk and recorder offices, as has been proposed in other Illinois counties.
County and City officials have begun collaborating in several ways, most notably as they finalize plans to combine 911 call centers and avoid duplication.
“Right now, you call about a robbery in Rockford and your call bangs off the cellphone tower and routes you to the County,” explains O’Shea. “The dispatcher says that’s the City, so they route you to the City dispatcher. What the heck did we waste our time for?”
Caruana and Haney both say they support the plan to consolidate 911 operations. Caruana adds that the current setup costs the county about $1.8 million a year.
Caruana and O’Shea remain in regular contact on several fronts, maintaining a closer communication than their predecessors. O’Shea hosts regular meetings with Caruana and the heads of other law enforcement agencies and federal bureaus. Rockford and sheriff’s teams have also shared office space with each other as well as other agencies, wherever it makes sense.
The Pension Crisis
Illinois taxpayers are on the hook for some pretty expensive retirement funds for police, fire and municipal employees.
Taxpayers in the state will shell out an estimated $11.2 billion to more than 61,000 pensioners this year, according to data by the state’s Commission on Government Forecasting & Accountability. By fiscal year 2044, payouts are expected to exceed $25 billion.
In order to pay those pensioners, state law requires that each public pension program maintain a certain level of assets. Currently, the state’s five retirement systems maintain about $129.8 billion in unfunded liability. By law, these pension programs are required to accelerate their levels of funding in the next few decades.
So where, then, does the money come from, when municipal budgets are already stretched thin? None of our new leaders are quite sure what it’ll take to create a sustainable solution.
Haney says the County employees’ retirement systems are funded at higher levels than the rest of the state, but it’s small comfort given the magnitude of the situation.
“The fact that we do not have sustainable funding mechanisms for pensions we promised to people who’ve worked for the government for decades is very troublesome,” he says. “This is what happens when you defer and you focus on short-term versus long-term sustainability.”
McNamara, who’s about to begin negotiations with the largest public employee unions, says things will have to change, and he believes the unions are also aware of what’s coming.
But he’s also concerned about the state laws governing pension obligations and funding. In one case, he says, these funding levels assume life spans of 121 years.
“Our pensions are growing at a rate of 7 percent, and our revenues are growing at a rate of 2 percent,” he says. “If the state does nothing, our pension obligations will outweigh our general fund revenue by 2052.”
Caruana thinks back to his former employer, UPS, and how it transformed a corporate pension into a 401(k) plan. He thinks it’s possible to create a similar shift, but it’ll require some reward for all parties.
“We need to be more effective and efficient, but I think people like this – police officers, firefighters, paramedics – there’s got to be some type of reward and a goal for them to work toward,” he says. “They can’t work all their lives, but there has got to be skin in the game – for employee and employer.”
Economic and Workforce Development
As much as budget cutting and lower taxes will reduce the burden on taxpayers, so, too, will economic development.
“How do we grow our values back so that our property is worth more money and people are willing to pay more for property?” says Haney. “We have to grow our way out of this, not just cut our way out. We have to make some cuts in government to right-size and spend only the money we have, but our long-term, 20-year strategy is to retain talent.”
Like many local leaders, Haney looks toward workforce development as a means of growing qualified employees and filling the estimated 3,500 to 6,000 area jobs that go unfilled because a suitable candidate can’t be found.
Haney is a strong believer in the concept of 7-2-1, which suggests that for every job in a community that requires an advanced degree, two jobs require a college degree and seven more require a technical skill. It’s the 21st-century reality, he says, that everyone needs marketable skills to succeed in the working world.
That’s why he’s excited about the prospects of Barber-Colman Village, a $32.3 million proposed partnership between the County, City and Rock Valley College to turn the former south-side Barber-Colman factory into a hub for education and workforce development.
The project is promising not only because it could attract new employers to the region but because it can help to fill local jobs being vacated by retiring baby boomers.
But what about the 6 percent of local students who won’t even graduate high school?
“Believe that every person in your community is capable of finding success,” says Haney. “Every student is capable of learning. That doesn’t mean they all have the same abilities, but when we look at workforce development being the core component of developing our people, we have to believe our folks are capable of success.”
McNamara wants to see more efforts to develop area children before they’ve reached public school, especially youngsters from at-risk homes. He sees programs like Head Start, the federal preschool program, and Early Head Start, for children age birth to 3 years, as a means to steering youngsters away from crime.
Perception vs. Reality
It was the first day of school and police officers were standing outside offering high-fives as students entered the building. Parents wondered, “Uh oh. What’s happened?”
“That’s exactly what we’re trying to get rid of,” says O’Shea. “You see the police, and it shouldn’t be, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s the problem?’ You see the police, and it should be, ‘Hey, the police are here.’”
Changing paradigms takes time and a lot of buy-in. There’s evidence that Rockford’s crime rates are beginning to turn around, but just how safe we feel may take time to sink in. Until the perception meets reality, the city’s crime is likely to feel worse than it is.
“I totally believe in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and on the second rung is safety and security,” says Caruana. “You’re not going to get economic development until you feel safe and secure in your environment.”
McNamara seeking new ways to dispense more good news through social media and periodic data releases on the city’s website. He’s also eager to do more to show at-risk families where their kids can find positive activities.
“I’ve been going to juvenile detention facilities and saying to kids, ‘What do you need to live a positive life?’” says McNamara. “The funny thing is that a lot of the stuff they ask about, we have – but they have no clue about it because we’re not reaching them where they’re at. We’re still sending out mailings about nonprofits’ programs. These kids and their families aren’t looking at mailings. They’re looking at Facebook.”
At the County level, both Caruana and Haney believe it’ll take a regional effort to move Rockford past its challenges.
No longer can we keep living in silos, and no longer can ordinary citizens afford not to engage with the workings of their government. It’s only when we work together that we find success.
“I think we need people to get off the sidelines and engage,” says Haney. “Engage with government, and make sure that government is acting, and behaving, and performing in line with their values, instead of the other way around.”