The Metropolitan Planning Council’s Change Makers: Modernizing County Government in Illinois interview series addresses challenges faced by county governments throughout the region. DuPage County’s groundbreaking ACT Initiative, a policy agenda that prioritizes accountability, consolidation and transparency, serves as a model for Illinois communities and we are identifying the unique barriers that diverse localities are encountering in light of new reforms and efficiency measures.
Chairman Frank Haney of Winnebago County (R) offered the first interview in this series. Haney spoke with the Metropolitan Planning Council to discuss current reform efforts in his jurisdiction. Located in Northern Illinois, west of Chicago, Winnebago is the seventh most populous county in the state. With a population of 296,000 people, Winnebago is also home to the City of Rockford. Frank Haney was elected as County Chairman in 2016 and is implementing an ACT Initiative that is tailored to Winnebago’s needs.
Tell me about the need in Winnebago County for government efficiency and how the ACT initiative was established.
“A previous County Purchasing Director misused public funds and was found guilty in a federal investigation,” Haney said. He explained that Winnebago’s ACT Initiative dismantles the culture of “cronyism” and “nepotism,” such as instances of elected officials with immediate family members working in local government. “We don’t want people to think this is an environment of favoritism,” Haney said. The County is focused on hiring the best talent and is “sending a message to set the deck straight.”
Haney emphasized the “need to professionalize and modernize Winnebago County” and that his office is looking at best practices in other counties to decide how to move forward. As a newly elected official, and the first Chairman in the County’s history who is not from Winnebago, this is a priority for Haney.
What are potential areas for consolidation in Winnebago County and successful reforms thus far? What are other issues areas you would like to address as Chairman?
Winnebago County has already streamlined their 9-1-1 system. Previously shared between the City of Rockford and Winnebago County, the system was problematic because there would be 10,000 9-1-1 calls bouncing off the wrong call tower. “As a resident and a father,” Haney stated, “when you call 9-1-1, you can’t afford delays.”
Haney described criminal justice as an area with potential for government reform and stated that Winnebago is looking for partnerships around the topic of re-entry. He pointed to a partnership between the City of Rockford, Winnebago County, and the Court system to relocate the Juvenile Assessment Center and make the booking and assessment process more efficient.
Future endeavors include streamlining the County’s Election Authority by assessing the merge of the County Clerk with the Recorder of Deeds, as Cook County voted to do in 2016. Haney is also looking to consolidate operations across departments, particularly with joint equipment purchasing. This would assist the County in “getting our own house cleaned first,” Haney said.
How do you strike the balance between cost-efficiency and improving service delivery when making decisions on government accountability or consolidation?
“Ideally, we are always seeking to provide the best service at the lowest cost,” said Haney, “though “Sometimes it’s one or the other.”.
Complicating this decision-making process is Winnebago’s $4 million deficit for 2018 and a tangible need to improve outcomes. The City of Rockford has an estimated $6 million deficit, and the Park District is facing $1 million hurdle. Rockford also has a steep pension burden and high public safety needs. Haney believes it is imperative to explore efficient reforms in all areas of government with even small efforts, such as joint purchasing initiatives across entities.
The ACT initiative is targeting redundancy in government services, a lack of transparency, and more. How do those underlying issues affect your ability to pursue your goals related to economic development, sustainability, infrastructure development, equity and overall quality of life?
The ACT Initiative and infrastructure projects should be aligned to deliver better services to residents, Haney explained. The County was starting to see the effects of government bureaucracy with the state budget impasse. The Illinois Department of Transportation was discussing projects within Winnebago that would be stymied by the budget issue. Another of Haney’s concerns includes government partnerships in the absence of clear communication. “We want to have one voice,” Haney emphasized, especially since “what happens in one municipality can affect others.”
What type of feedback has the ACT Initiative received and how have you communicated its objectives with constituents and partners?
Haney explained that residents in his County have been open to the ACT Initiative. Winnebago has utilized Transform Illinois as a platform to adopt ideas from partners that might benefit the County. Haney explained that local government generally “needs to think smarter” and Winnebago is “in the process of blurring lines across agencies that used to be silos.” He believes county governments share many issues and building partnerships is crucial.
Haney contended that “the baggage of the past” not be brought into current projects. “It’s okay if not everything is consolidated,” since there are several other approaches to achieve efficiency. In communicating these goals to partners, the Chairman knows there will not always be agreement but believes it is important to not let “one issue get in the way of the next ten.”
What type of external support does your county need in order to successfully meet the goals of the ACT initiative?
“We need to have a larger and louder collective voice as a region advocating for effective government,” Haney stated. He is particularly interested in becoming more engaged at the policy level in Springfield with the intent of supporting legislation that promotes efficient strategies that embody the goals of the Act Initiative. He is also interested in learning more about best practices in other counties and engaging with research institutes such as the Northern Illinois University Center for Government Studies in order to improve Winnebago’s approach to governance.
Haney’s intent to strengthen partnerships based on common goals is integral to MPC’s vision of building municipal capacity across the region. A concerted effort to build public and political will around service sharing and consolidation—when the processes would prove beneficial and appropriate—has been critical to the work of the Transform Illinois coalition and the Metropolitan Planning Council.