BYRON – It is easy to see that Kim Gouker is a busy man.
When he walks into the room for an Ogle County Board member, he says his hellos and shakes some hands, but he is there to work.
Recently selected by his peers on the board to continue to serve as chairman of the Board, Gouker said the county has plenty of work ahead of it.
He recently sat down to answer a few questions about that work.
Question: Why did you decide to seek the chairmanship of the county board again?
Answer: I sought the County Board chairmanship again this year, because we need to continue the positive, and cooperative, work of our Board that we have enjoyed the past few years. Three-quarters of our Board members have returned for another term, and these ladies and gentlemen represent the best of the best that have served our County for the past several years. This year, one-fourth of our Board is new, and this "freshman" group appears to have the best and broadest set of experiences and backgrounds of any new incoming group since I have been on the Board.
What makes a strong Board is not that all are in agreement, but to the contrary, a group that disagrees in a positive manner so that the end result is in the best interest of the taxpayers. It seems that we have that kind of positive diversity this year, and as Chairman, it's my hope to blend this new blood with the experience we have in a way that will move this Board forward in a very strong way. We've accomplished much in the past few years, and we have much to do. I'm proud to be part of it, and to work with this great group of public servants.
During the last two years, our County has made great strides forward, and much is still ahead of us. Some of our greatest accomplishments this past Board term include 1) the creation and implementation, with Lee County, of a new Enterprise Zone, with property extensions in Rochelle, Oregon and Mt. Morris, 2) the creation of a new cooperative working group among many Ogle County municipalities to advance economic development in these communities and County, 3) the remodeling of a new County facility in Rochelle that consolidated remote location offices for our County Health Department clinic and Probation Department offices, as well as the primary location for our Ogle County Emergency Management Center, 4) a new radio communication tower located outside of Oregon, 5) partnership with the City of Oregon and the Oregon Park District for the successful solicitation of a state grant for the new Heritage Trail bike and walking trail from Oregon to Lowden State Park, 6) a fully revised Personnel Policy manual, 7) continued County budgets during the past two years with flat property tax levies and 8) the continued and consistent repair and maintenance of miles of County roads throughout the County by our outstanding Highway Department.
Of course, as always, we had a couple “headline” issues that have needed a lot of our focus and effort, and that are hopefully coming to successful conclusions during this next Board term. During this past year, the Board has faced the contentious issue of zoning farms in various locations in the County, and rightfully so, the Board stepped back with a moratorium to better assess the issue. Hopefully at our special meeting in January we will come to some conclusions, but this issue will be with us for most of the next year as we will continue to deal with an industrial-type activity in our residential areas. And, the main “headline” issue for the past term, as it will be for the upcoming term, is the new County jail. During our last term, the County Board reached a very reasonable compromise with the City of Oregon to allow closure of Sixth Street to allow our next County Jail to be located in the safest and most efficient location.
Q: The new county jail is a huge project for the county, and a big expense. Where is the county in the process, and what can people expect in the next year or two?
A: During the next term, construction of the new County Jail will be a major undertaking for the County Board. The project itself is progressing quite well, as this last Fall we rerouted the city’s water main and sewer on Sixth Street, as well as the electrical, natural gas and data utilities, in order to clear Sixth Street for construction. Last Fall a final design was presented to the County Board that reflects well upon the current County campus, and blends well with the existing Judicial Center. Just last week, the architects completed work on the construction design of the facility, which is the very detailed design of every part of the facility that will be used for the ultimate construction. Now this design will be packaged by our construction manager within a set of bid packages, that will be presented to area contractors during the month of January for bids to be presented to the County Board for selection at the February County Board meeting. Once the various contractors are selected, by presenting the lowest qualified bid, our construction manager will qualify all of the bids, during the month of February and March, and construction will begin in April. Major construction is scheduled to be completed in November 2020 and the operation will be transferred from our existing jail in early 2021.
Q: Solar is another issue facing the county. What can property owners and solar companies expect to come from the county as it looks at guidelines governing solar in Ogle County?
A: As far as solar zoning in Ogle County, as I mentioned, we stepped back in the process this year, appointed an Ad Hoc Committee to review the process, and the Board should finally act on their most recent recommendations at our special County Board meeting in early January. But, this issue will likely continue, as the time we had for the Ad Hoc Committee review was relatively short, due to the State’s schedule for lottery selection of final siting of solar installations. But the auction, that will occur this month or next, will likely only be the beginning of solar issues, as the auction will leave more than 90 percent of all approved solar zoning applications statewide unfilled. Because this issue will remain before us, and because we had a short time for the Ad Hoc Committee to assess the issue, it will be my recommendation to the County Board that rather than terminating the solar moratorium, instead we temporarily suspend it to allow action on applications that have been presented to us to date, and then review the matter to be sure a final, permanent solution has been found. This issue will not go away, and we must be ready to address it.
Q: As you look to the future, what are some other issues that you believe the board will face?
A: There are other issues facing the County Board other than construction of a new jail and solar zoning, and top on that list is the structural fiscal deficit that we have been trying to cope with for these last five years. Following the last hard recession, and due to changes in State funding, the revenues for the County have not returned to pre-recession levels, and since then, have not kept pace with the rising costs either. As we have used reserves in past years to address this structural deficit, we need to find a permanent solution, as reserves may no longer be available to cover the shortfalls. Because taxpayers have deficits of their own to address, the Board rightfully has not increased tax levies more than nominal amounts during the past several years, and we need to find our deficit solution with budget spending decisions rather than passing it on to the taxpayers. I’m confident we will meet this task in our next Board term.