WOODRIDGE — While praising DuPage County’s accomplishments in business and governance, County Board Chairman Dan Cronin had to couch it with one unavoidable fact of geography: DuPage is still within Illinois.
In a state of the county address Thursday, Cronin recapped high points from his two years in office, including consecutive years of budget cuts, a smaller county staff and plans to streamline government agencies.
Those steps, which have helped keep the county’s property tax rate down, are among the many factors that have kept DuPage County an attractive destination for businesses, Cronin said.
So as state lawmakers feud over Illinois’ intractable fiscal problems, Cronin suggested they look to DuPage as an example.
“I believe that DuPage can be a bright light in the dim prospects of economic growth and job creation in our state,” he said.
Cronin delivered his remarks over a luncheon with scores of business leaders and elected officials from Downers Grove, Lisle, Westmont and Woodridge.
He has delivered similar comprehensive addresses before — recently to the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce in September. Since that speech, the County Board has approved a budget that trims $8.1 million in spending from last year.
But state lawmakers, in the same timeframe, have made little measurable progress on the state’s looming pension problem — a nearly $100 billion unfunded liability that has led to multiple downgrades of the state’s credit rating.
In 2011, Illinois led the nation in out-of-state migration, and was second in 2012 only behind superstorm-ravaged New Jersey, Cronin noted.
“The impact of this flight out of our state is immense,” he said, citing a statewide think-tank. “Illinois lost out on $26 billion in taxable income between 1995 and 2009 due to folks moving out of state.”
Cronin contrasted the state’s fiscal disarray with DuPage’s “responsible, frugal” government.
“Since our budget is in solid shape, we are in the unique position of having the ability to turn our focus in to what’s happening at several of the county’s independent agencies,” he said.
Last year, the county commissioned an accounting firm study of two dozen agencies, looking for inefficiencies. The firm’s findings led to the DuPage ACT initiative — or “accountable, consolidation and transparency.”
Agencies have updated hiring processes and reviewed salaries and benefits. Several have cut cell phones and credit cards.
“I don’t see the need for any credit cards in government frankly,” Cronin said.
Cuts within the Election Commission alone are slated to save nearly $600,000 over the next three years, he said.
“It is my belief that DuPage County is ripe — is ripe — to serve as a laboratory to determine what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
The steps have helped keep costs down for taxpayers; DuPage County’s property tax levy has stayed even at $66.6 million the past three years. That, along with the county’s unparalleled quality of life, is key for economic development, Cronin said.
But there is stiff competition from the east, Cronin said.
“We have a mayor in Chicago that’s very aggressive about calling and poaching business,” he said.
In recent years, several large companies left their suburban offices for space in the city, often with tax incentives attached. The former Sara Lee, for instance, received $6.5 million in 2012 when it moved its headquarters from Downers Grove to the Loop.
But DuPage County is just as serious about economic recruitment, Cronin said.
“We will go to great lengths in accommodating those businesses,” he said. “To the extent that we can offer incentives, we’ll play that game.”
The remarks were generally welcomed by the business leaders in attendance.
“We’re fortunate to have a very well run county here in DuPage,” said Michael Cassa, who as director of the Downers Grove Economic Development Corp. is tasked with attracting businesses to the village.
“My job’s made a lot easier by the policies and practices of DuPage County.”