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Ideology drove the jail petition, not sober analytics

      Over the last three decades, there has been a growing cynicism toward government at all levels. It’s become fashionable to ridicule government as mendacious and inept. With a “starve the beast” mentality, 219 U.S. Representatives and 39 U.S. Senators have taken Grover Norquist’s No New Taxes pledge —their allegiance to this oath apparently taking precedence over their oath of office.
Al-Ortbals-mug    Before you throw this paper down in disgust, please hear me out. I’m not trying to tell you that government is wonderful; that it can do no wrong; or that it is the solution to all of our problems. Government is neither the elixir for all our ills nor the Great Satan.
    When you get down to the essence of it, government is the operating system of a group of people. More than 220 years ago we began an experiment with democracy and self-governance. Representative democracy is the core of American government, from a homeowners association to the United States Congress. Everyone can’t vote on every issue so we elect people to vote for us and, if we don’t like their decisions, we vote someone else in.
    In order for this to work, there has to be a certain level of trust that the people who are closest to the situation and most familiar with all facets of the issue — our representatives — will make the correct decision. Without some basic level of trust in our representatives and in the system, democracy breaks down.
    The Madison County Jail bond issue is a case in point. The issuance of bonds to pay for these repairs and renovations should be rudimentary, but it has been turned into a controversy. It shouldn’t have. Shelve the ideology and consider the facts.
    Only the most obstinate argue the need for the project. The jail was built in 1979 to house 100 prisoners; now it has to deal with as many as 300. Not only are the plumbing and HVAC systems deteriorated and inadequate to handle the larger load but the roof needs to be replaced; the sally port (the secure area where prisoners are loaded and unloaded) is insufficient; the processing area is too small; and the building has no fire suppression system. Ask yourself what would happen if a fire broke out in an overcrowded building with 300 prisoners and no sprinkler system.
    Once you understand the facts and you answer that question, it becomes clear that the job needs to be done and the question becomes how to pay for it.
    Unless you’ve been living in a cave in the Hindu Kush you know that the construction business has been on its knees for the last five years. Contractors are begging for work and traveling far and wide to get it. With the demand for work far outstripping the supply of projects, bidding has been extremely competitive.
    Unless you know absolutely nothing about construction work and the bidding process, you know that the more you package together, the better the deal you’re going to get.
    And, unless you are completely clueless, you know that interest rates are at historic lows but you also know that the market holds its collective breath every time the Federal Reserve Board meets to consider raising them.
    If you know all of those things you quickly come to the conclusion that the smart move is to do the $18.8 million jail project today — not tomorrow. Breaking it up into pieces; spreading it out over time, only raises the cost.
    So, your choice really comes down to borrowing the money or taking it from reserves as some have suggested. If you have rudimentary knowledge of finance you know that whether you’re an individual, a business or a government, you have to maintain cash reserves for unexpected expenses. If Madison County were to deplete its reserves for this project, it could very well find itself borrowing money at a much higher rate when some unexpected expense falls into its lap — not a good option.
    And, if you are capable of doing fifth-grade math you realize that $18.8 million borrowed at 2.5 percent interest (a high side estimate) over 20 years would raise the property tax on a $120,000 home by about $10 per year — assuming that the cost of the debt service couldn’t be saved elsewhere in the county budget.
    If you have the facts and do an objective analysis, the answer becomes clear and it’s not to submit the question to a non-binding referendum next March. Ideology pushed the petition, not sober analytics. Sometimes, the “government is the problem” dogma causes us to do stupid things.    
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at or (618) 659-1997.

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