Pick your metaphor. Slippery slope. Off a cliff.
It is never a good thing when a government body borrows money to cover operating expenses. New debt papers over simple facts: You are spending more than you take in. That is not sustainable. And it makes future decisions substantially harder than they might have been if reality had been faced early on.
Two of our local governments are now in that pickle. And that means we are in that pickle right there with them.
Riverside-Brookfield High School borrowed nearly $5 million in working cash bonds in 2008 to pay its bills. The bills were paid. The money is gone. The debt is due by 2013. Since then, an effort to pass a tax-hike referendum was crushed last spring – with a 77 percent no vote being our official definition of “crushed.” And we’ve all taken note that there is no possible help coming from Springfield or Washington. State and federal funding will only become less and less reliable.
So RB is left to its own devices. Last week it got a bracing report from a consultant who told the board – and, rightly in a separate presentation, told the school’s staff – that if spending continues at current rates and with revenues absolutely frozen at current levels, the district will be “broke” in 2015. That’s three years from now. That’s a wake-up call.
Meanwhile in North Riverside, the village government has been only slowly waking from its long enchanted slumber – decades in which sales tax and commercial property taxes made living in town a nearly cost-free and perk-laden experience. Except that things aren’t ever free and people who assume they are will pay eventually.
Eventually is now. The national economic thumping of the past four years is not abating soon. That means sales taxes from the mall and property taxes on commercial land will not provide any tonic. The village board and staff have hard, limited choices to make and, finally, local residents are going to have to pay up through every means the village can invent – fees and more fees.
Like the high school, the village had a chance to start making tough choices back in 2009. Instead it borrowed $2 million that it really didn’t have a plan to repay. Now, right now, in two weeks, that money is due. And rightfully, frustrated citizens last week tossed the proverbial wrench in the village’s Rube Goldberg plan to refinance the debt. In gathering petition signatures, a citizens group would have forced the borrowing onto a referendum next spring. Two problems: The loan is due in December and must be refinanced now. And voters were highly unlikely to approve the new debt if given a vote on it.
The sad, inevitable outcome is that the village found a new and more expensive route to borrow the same money. Reality is, there still isn’t a genuine plan to repay this new loan and the coming departure of the Edward Don Co. blows a giant-sized hole in both sales and property tax projections.
So less revenue and more short-term debt can only be addressed by stiff spending cuts across all fronts of village government. More pain ahead.
At RB, there will be layoffs of staff, cutbacks in programs. And, in 18 months, with the teachers contract coming due, there will need to be a wholly new approach and expectation on salaries and benefits.
All of this is painful. All of it is real. And all of it was predictable before these two bodies borrowed cash they didn’t have a real plan to repay.