The new chairman of the Rock Island County Board is not so new.

Phil Banaszek, an 18-year member of the board, was sworn in as chairman Dec. 3. Although he served his first five years as a Republican, Banaszek switched parties, largely because he had political ambitions he knew would be difficult to realize in the Democratic stronghold of Rock Island County.

When former chairman Jim Bohnsack retired, Banaszek was chosen to head the 25-member board.

In fact, the size of the board is one of several complicated matters left to Banaszek to navigate.

Although an advisory referendum on the November ballot won overwhelming voter support for reducing the board size to 15 members, Banaszek said the change could take years to implement.

Also on hold is an effort to restore Niabi Zoo’s lost accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Getting more immediate attention, however, is the need for a new courthouse, which has been on Banaszek’s radar since joining the board nearly two decades ago.

“When I was first elected, I had people wanting to drag me over there (to the courthouse) for a tour, and that was 18 years ago,” he said. “The judges could just sue us.”

A new courthouse

One of Banaszek’s first orders of business as county chairman is to help guide the board toward a solution to its crumbling courthouse while protecting taxpayers from a possible lawsuit.

Judges from the 14th Circuit Court already have fired a warning shot across the board’s bow, signaling their diminishing patience with their deteriorating workplace conditions. If critical issues at the 117-year-old courthouse are not addressed soon, Banaszek said, the judges could sue the county.

“The County Board has failed to address the court facility need for 20 years,” a committee of judges wrote in a November report. “Facility conditions have deteriorated to the point that they are jeopardizing the Court’s ability to administer justice in this county and placing the health and safety of the public and staff at risk.”

County officials last year were considering a plan that would move several courthouse and county services to land near the Moline-Rock Island border currently occupied by the Quad-City Industrial Center.

A six-member advisory committee failed to make a recommendation on four options for an improved and/or relocated courthouse, including the center site. One of the members disclosed a conflict of interest after studying the options for several months.

The center option, which would consolidate four county offices at the industrial-warehouse site, remains on the table, Banaszek said.

“It would solve a lot of problems for us,” he said. “Whatever is most cost-effective is what I’m for.”

The latest plan is to ask voters in an April ballot measure whether to give the Public Building Commission expanded authority over the courthouse. The commission was created as a go-between to get the Rock Island County Criminal Justice Center built about a decade ago.

The county leases the justice center, which includes several courtrooms, clerks’ offices and some jail functions, for $1.5 million annually. The complex will be paid off in the fiscal year ending in 2019, and Banaszek said the county then would have the funding to pay off new courthouse debt.

The judges’ report indicates an expectation that a new courthouse would be built by 2015, however.

“We’ve got a ways to go on it, but we’re working on it,” the chairman said. “We don’t have an option but to solve this problem.”

Niabi Zoo

What happens at the county zoo in Coal Valley is as much up to its fundraisers as it is the county board, Banaszek said.

When longtime zoo director Tom Stalf left Niabi Zoo in 2010 for a larger zoo in Ohio, he warned county officials something needed to be done about elephants Babe and Sophie. If the elephants’ enclosure was not sufficiently expanded to make room for a third elephant, Niabi could lose its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Stalf said the much sought-after association standing could be lost without the expansion.

His fears materialized two years later when the association dropped Niabi’s accreditation.

Even so, the current focus at Niabi is not on the elephant enclosure.

“The priority now is the lion exhibit,” Banaszek said. “It’s nothing against the elephants. It’s just how it shook out.”

Decisions about investments in exhibits at Niabi are made primarily by the Zoological Society, which raises money for the zoo, he said.

Reduction in board size

Although 72 percent of Rock Island County voters cast ballots in favor of reducing the size of the board from 25 to 15, it could take nearly a decade to get the job done, Banaszek said.

The county is relying on a nearly 40-year-old legal opinion from a long-ago attorney general, which suggests counties cannot determine board sizes until a census year. The next census is in 2020.

Banaszek said he drafted a letter last week to State’s Attorney John McGehee, asking him to solicit a new legal opinion from current Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. He said some people do not understand that eliminating 10 board seats takes considerable legal work.

“They think it can be done overnight,” he said. “They claim there’s a way to change it. If there is, we don’t know about it.”

One way of doing business that has changed for the board, effective around the first of the year, is the way in which board members are compensated.

The board eliminated the opportunity for board members to be paid for their representation, even when they do not show up for board and committee meetings.

“We restructured it, so you have to attend to be paid the $100 per meeting,” Banaszek said. “The base pay is $2,400 with another $100 per board meeting and $60 for standing committee meetings.

“If you attend every meeting, the pay is $6,000 a year.”

The board meets once a month, and board members are appointed to two committees. The committees also meet monthly, making the commitment three meetings per month.

Eliminating 10 board members, Banaszek said, the county would realize little savings.

“We would only save about $70,000 out of a $70 million annual county budget,” he said. “That’s a ballpark figure. It’s really not much of a savings.”

The board is expected to vote on whether to send the letter, seeking Madigan’s legal opinion, at its February meeting.