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January 12, 2020

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Property-tax flop is no surprise

A month ago, legislators were promising to produce by Dec. 31 a blockbuster report that would recommend how to reduce Illinois’ excessive property taxes.

“Introducing anything less than a substantial overhaul will not be tolerated by the public. This will be a heavy lift, and we’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” said state Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, chairman of a task force convened on the issue.

Well, apparently, the toughest decision they decided to make was not to make any tough decisions.

The deadline has come and gone. All that’s been produced so far is more finger-pointing between Democrats and Republicans about which one of the two parties fell the farthest short in producing a set of substantive recommendations.

While disappointing, it’s hardly surprising. This vexing problem has not only defied solution for decades, it’s also defied serious attempts at a solution.

In fact, all that our legislators have done over the years is run the state’s finances into the ground and then watch as local units of government put increasing reliance on property taxes to fund services, most particularly public schools.

While much was made in advance about its potential significance, creation of the 88-member legislative committee on property-tax reform was never anything more than a political sop that Gov. J.B. Pritzker used to persuade reluctant Democrats to put his proposed constitutional amendment replacing the state’s current flat tax mandate with a progressive income tax on the November 2020 ballot.

Where do things stand? A draft report prepared by the Democrats offers little in the way of proposals that reduce property taxes.

As for the Republicans, they’re complaining that most of their proposals for property-tax relief were rejected. Democrats say that’s just not so, that they’re waiting to hear from the GOP about proposed changes to their draft report.

Here’s the problem — the parties are at odds over what to do and can find no common ground.

What a surprise, eh?

The Democratic report calls for, among other things, increased state spending on K-12 schools, a move that might convince local school officials to reduce their property taxes. It also raises the prospect of consolidating hundreds of elementary and high school districts into K-12 “unit” districts and contends that revenue generated by a tax on services could be directed to local schools.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs lobbed the sharpest criticism at the task force itself. He charged that despite having 88 members, the task force held virtually no meetings and took no votes. Now that sounds like the usual weak and insincere legislative efforts the people of Illinois have come to know and not love. All self-congratulations and self-promotion that labors hardly at all and produces little of use.

Among the GOP proposals put forth were modifications of pension benefits for new public employees, restrictions on unfunded mandates the state places on local units of government and great emphasis on consolidating local units of government.

The legislature is scheduled to reconvene in late January, and property taxes will be a continuing subject of discussion. Pritzker has indicated that addressing the issue is a top priority.

But nothing is likely to come of it because big changes would undermine the political status quo.

But the current situation won’t hold forever because property-tax problems are growing worse, particularly in the Chicago area, where homeowners complain they are causing home values to fall.

In the past, legislators have been able to distance themselves from this vexing issue by pointing fingers at local governments that impose property taxes. But there’s a cause and effect between how the state conducts its business — poorly — and property-tax hikes at the local level.

If, in fact, legislators are serious about taking on this tough issue, the ongoing political fight shows they are failing.

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January 10, 2020

Chicago Sun-Times

When a little boy is attacked by a coyote in our `City in a Garden’

Most Chicagoans wouldn’t be too surprised to see a big possum saunter up the stairs to their second-floor back deck, as happened to us one summer evening not too long ago.

Wildlife of all kinds are often spotted in Chicago.

That includes coyotes traveling through Lincoln Park, as we were reminded this past week by the rescue of a coyote from Lake Michigan and an attack on a child by another coyote.as we were reminded this past week by the rescue of coyote from Lake Michigan and an attack on a child by another coyote.

We live in a city that is famously, as the motto says, an “Urbs in Horto” — a City in a Garden. Chicago boasts some 3,800 acres of natural areas. With that comes opossums, squirrels, rabbits, foxes and — for better or worse — coyotes.

Editorials

An estimated 2,000 to 4,000 coyotes live in Cook County, and they’re notoriously shy creatures that rarely attack people. The attack on the 6-year-old boy, who was bitten in the head, as well as a reported attack the same day on a man walking down a sidewalk, were the first in Chicago in decades.

As Kelley Gandurski, head of Chicago Animal Care and Control, put it, the animal “was not acting like a coyote if it was brazen enough to attack a child.”

As a rule, wildlife in Chicago have a whole lot more reason to fear us than we have to fear them, though we know that’s no solace at all to the little boy — or the grown man — who were attacked this week.

If you do encounter a coyote, the experts say, don’t turn your back or run. Hold your arms out wide and make yourself look big. Throw something to scare it off. And never, of course, try to feed it.

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January 12, 2020

The (Moline) Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

A superhighway of goods.

Some might think it odd to label a 221-mile stretch of Mississippi River a single port. For many, a port is thought of as a geographically confined space, where goods are shipped in and out.

That's not the way it is any longer.

In fact, on inland waterways it hasn't been that way for a long time.

"The ports on inland waterways are really long and linear things," says Bob Sinkler, the former commander of the Rock Island District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Across the country, communities have formed port designations that stretch for tens, even hundreds, of miles. Places like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Huntington, West Virginia, St. Louis and south Louisiana, among others, have recognized this reality.

We haven't.

It's not too late to catch up.

A coalition of Iowa and Illinois counties along the Mississippi River have signed on to a proposal to create an inland port designation stretching from Dubuque to Keokuk. It's to be called the Mississippi River Ports of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois.

If approved, we think this would be something to be reckoned with.

There is a much to be gained in seeing this stretch of the Mississippi River as a single entity. It could mean more federal funds, greater interest from economic development prospects – jobs for the Quad-Cities.

That prospect alone is enough to catch our eye.

We’ve always known the Mississippi River is a highway of goods that move daily through our community. But when you consider the wider area from Dubuque to Keokuk, this section of river would be an even greater force, a superhighway if you will — the 68th largest port in the country and among the top 20 inland ports.

Sinkler has spent months on getting such a designation approved. Ten of 15 counties along this part of the river, among them Scott County, have already signed on. Advocates are hoping the other five do, too.

Within the Corps, this designation will carry resonance, he says. "The port is the natural customer for a Corps of Engineer district, or one of the natural customers," he says. Sinkler, who was the Rock Island district commander from 2006 to 2009, is now an adviser at Washington, D.C.-based Dawson & Associates, though he says this is a volunteer effort and his firm is not involved.

It seems to us that, working together, the communities along the Mississippi River, under the umbrella of a single port, would be a more effective force lobbying for funds. Already, we're told that the Rock Island district can sometimes see money siphoned away to other districts that are affiliated with ports.

"We love this idea," says Denise Bulat, executive director of the Bi-State Regional Commission.

The coalition hopes to apply for the designation by the end of this month and gain approval by September. A unit of the Corps of Engineers, the Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center, would grant the designation.

It’s hard to see a downside to this. The port would not have taxing or land-use authority, officials say. It doesn’t have the power to take on debt. Instead, advocates say, it is meant to be a single entity for collection of data, a marketing tool and – essentially – a brand to make it easier to attract attention and funding.

One potential target: Communities along the river could work together to seek federal funding from the federal Water Resources Development Act, an important piece of legislation that occurs every few years authorizing water resource projects.

Around here, WRDA, as it's known, doesn't get a lot of attention. But in places with well-established ports, it's a big deal. Among the possibilities: Securing funding for ecosystem restoration projects.

The communities within the Quad-Cities have long seen the value of bi-state cooperation. We work across the river to provide for basic infrastructure, to build and maintain new bridges and protect federal jobs.

This cooperation has paid dividends for our community. Just look at the new Interstate-74 bridge.

We think that cooperation can only be enhanced by working as a Mississippi River region, connecting our community with others all up and down the river to seek out new prospects, be they commercial or environmental.

We're looking forward to seeing the Mississippi River Ports of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois become a reality.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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