Questions Raised by Stimulus Funds Memo

By Michael Kleen ~ Published September 18, 2013 at the Rock River Times

16310704_sAfter weeks of delay, the City of Rockford finally released the results of its internal review of the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s audit, which covered roughly $599,000 in federal stimulus funds spent in 2009 and 2010. This memo, written by Rockford City Administrator James Ryan, raises several alarming questions about the possibility of wrongdoing by City staff and its grant recipients. There are, in fact, at least two instances where further investigation may be warranted.

The first demonstrates a clear failure (whether intentional or not) to follow stimulus fund guidelines on the part of Rockford Human Services Department staff, and may constitute, at the very least, a neglect of duties.

George Davis, Executive Director of the Rockford Human Services Department, first became aware that the Office of Inspector General was looking into Rockford’s use of federal stimulus funds in the fall of 2011. He told City Administrator James Ryan, “Given our general accounting practices and Department fiscal procedures I don’t expect that we will have any significant issues.”

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Trouble with TIFs

By Michael Kleen ~ Published September 4, 2013 at the Rock River Times

TIF DebtRockford’s 32 Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts cost taxpayers $2.75 million in 2012, according to a recent report by Finance Director Chris Black. That deficit was projected to increase to $11.38 million by 2023, before the trend reverses. This alarming news has led to the creation of a committee to look into the financial status of each TIF district. As long as this committee is impartial and objective, it could represent a positive step toward curbing Rockford’s TIF addiction.

What is a Tax Increment Finance district? In short, TIF districts are designed to help blighted areas by diverting public revenue toward redevelopment and improvement in those areas. The property tax allocated to various government entities within a designated district is “frozen” at the point the district is created. Any future increase in property tax revenue is captured in a fund and used to finance public infrastructure or reimburse private developers.

In theory, improvements spurred by the use of TIF will raise property values, which in turn will generate more money for the fund. This is money that would otherwise have gone to other taxing bodies, such as a county government or school district. This effectively deprives them of that revenue for the life of the TIF district. They continue to receive the same share of property taxes they received when the district was created.

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Big Business Payoffs Bring Few Results

By Michael Kleen ~ Published August 21, 2013 at the Rock River Times

govtspendingOn the third anniversary of the Wanxiang solar panel factory opening south of the Rockford airport, Channel 23 News began its story with a sobering fact. “It’s been nearly three years since a solar panel manufacturer opened its doors in the Forest City, a facility that was supposed to bring hundreds of jobs.” In reality, they reported, the plant has only 13 employees. After the segment, newscaster Tina Stein turned to her partner and remarked, “Quite a difference from what was originally promised.”

In exchange for receiving at least $1.2 million dollars in tax increment financing (TIF) funds, $4 million in state grants, 10 acres of land (worth $650,000), and guaranteed government contracts, Wanxiang was supposed to employ 60 people in its first phase alone. “This is the perfect example of how the city and county came together to create jobs,” Winnebago County Chairman Scott Christiansen said in August 2010. Today, the solar panel manufacturing center is barely operational.

Wanxiang Group is China’s second-largest privately held company, with revenues in the billions of dollars annually. Its founder, Lu Guanqiu, is the 33rd richest person in China, with a net worth of more than $1.87 billion. Did Wanxiang really need a few million dollars in public funds to open a factory in Winnebago County?

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Federal Audit Exposes Stimulus Fund Abuse

By Michael Kleen ~ Published August 7, 2013 at the Rock River Times

unclesammoneyhatCongress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in order to use Federal funds to stimulate the US economy, which had tumbled into severe recession. That February, the US unemployment rate hit 8.3 percent. The unemployment rate in Rockford was 14.1 percent in January 2009 and peaked at 20.3 percent in January 2010.

The Federal stimulus package provided $1 billion to the Community Services Black Grant Program for two years, ending on September 30, 2010. The stated purpose of this fund was to reduce poverty, revitalize low-income communities, and help low-income Americans. This would be done by providing services addressing employment education, better use of available income, housing, nutrition, and health.

The State of Illinois awarded Rockford’s Human Services Department $1,062,800 out of this fund. The Office of Inspector General of the US Health and Human Services Department later conducted an audit of how 56 percent (roughly $599,000) of that amount was spent in Rockford and determined that a hair more than one third of the audited funds were unallowable under the Recovery Act. A further $141,796 was deemed “potentially unallowable.” So the audit determined that fully 58 percent of the funds they examined were either unallowable or potentially unallowable.

The unallowable costs included $123,530 that was inadequately documented, $72,669 charged outside the award period, and $9,097 in entertainment expenses. The entertainment expenses included $8,717 for movie theater rental and $380 for paintballing. When the State of Illinois reviewed Rockford’s Recovery Act legers, it found that $6,615 in unused movie tickets was returned to the fund and therefore should have been allowable, but that information did not cause the Inspector General’s office to revise its findings.

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Watershed Moment for Rock Valley College Free Speech Lawsuit

By Michael Kleen ~ Published July 24, 2013 at the Rock River Times

Free speechIn the fall of 2012, Dominic Celletti, a criminal justice student at Rock Valley College (RVC), filed suit in Federal court against RVC President Jack Becherer, Student Life Manager Quiana Preston, and the Board of Trustees. Celletti alleged that RVC infringed on his freedom of speech with burdensome and arbitrary policy restrictions concerning campus bulletin boards. In April of this year, Judge Philip Reinhard granted a motion to dismiss the case and gave Celletti the opportunity to file an amended complaint, which he did on July 15th.

The suit stemmed from an incident in the fall of 2011. On September 2, 2011, Celletti approached staff at the Student Life Center about his ability to post flyers urging students to get involved in civil rights issues around campus. The flyer was a simple design featuring a call for students to read the U.S. Constitution and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, with Dominic’s phone number.

When Celletti inquired about posting the flyers, he was told that he was not allowed to post on campus bulletin boards because he was not a member of a campus club. As a non-affiliated student, he could be given access to one “free” and one “event” board in the Student Center Building.

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Latinos’ Increasing Role in Local Politics Good for the Community

By Michael Kleen ~ Published July 10, 2013 at the Rock River Times

Hispanic PatriotSoon after the election in April, Register Star reporter Isaac Guerrero asked in his blog, “When will Rockford Latinos exercise political power?” After all, he reasoned, the number of Latinos/Hispanics in Rockford grew nearly 58 percent between 2000 and 2010, while in the same period the non-Hispanic white population declined 9 percent. There are no less than two Spanish language newspapers in Rockford, and Hispanics are opening new businesses at an encouraging rate.

In all fairness, there has been some political activity among Latinos in Rockford and Winnebago County in recent years, and not all on the Democratic side of the aisle. Of the four current officeholders of Hispanic decent who live in Winnebago County (Julio Salgado, John Guevara, John Cabello, and Arnie Cabello) three were elected as Republicans.

Still, many local Hispanic candidates have found it difficult to obtain the financial and political support they need to get elected to public office. While many see Rockford’s Hispanics and Latinos as a minority group, I prefer to think of them as part of a silent majority that is largely shut out of the political process. It is a process in which candidates are frequently asked to step aside by their party or are passed over by big contributors because they are not in the correct social circles, live in the right neighborhoods, or work for the right companies.

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Proposed Panhandling Ordiance Changes

Since my column came out yesterday, there has been a lot of good discussion regarding my proposed amendments to Rockford’s aggressive panhandling ordinance. Since I did not have space in my column to outline the specific changes, I thought I would make a document available that clearly outlined the changes I am proposing. The most dramatic involves the addition of a section prohibiting “False or Misleading Solicitation.” A similar section appears in Orlando, Florida’s aggressive panhandling ordinance.

I have submitted these changes to members of the Codes & Regulation Committee, as well as City Attorney Patrick Hayes. Mr. Hayes’ staff is reviewing my suggestions and they will get back to me with a “substantive response.” He informed me that the City Council enacted some modifications to the panhandling ordinance in 2005 and 2006, but I don’t know what those modifications were.

The reason I’m blogging and writing about this is because I think the public should have a chance to review and discuss proposed changes to the law. All too often, lobbyists and special interest groups push through changes that affect a large part of the community, and the public doesn’t find out about them until the changes come up for a vote (or even after they are passed). Click this link to download a PDF document that shows our current ordinance and the expanded ordinance with changes in red.

Strengthening Rockford’s laws against public nuisances like panhandling was just one part of my public safety platform when I ran for mayor. I believe these changes would be good for our city, and I will work to get them passed over the next few weeks.