WHEATON, Ill. -- Aldo Botti, the new board chairman of DuPage County, believes county government needs to make fundamental changes in the way it conducts business to prepare the fast-growing suburban area for the 21st century.
Mr. Botti, a political newcomer who used an "ax taxes" platform last year to defeat a 12-year incumbent for the county's chief executive position, includes among those changes a need to step up county bond sales to fund capital improvements without increasing property taxes. In the past, the county has paid for most capital improvements with cash.
"In order to do everything we need to do without raising taxes, we have to look at the modern methods, the acceptable methods, the sound methods of financing, and that means long-term bonding," Mr. Botti said. "DuPage County is now in the big leagues."
Once a county of bedroom communities filled with people who commuted to jobs in Chicago, DuPage is now home to such companies as McDonald's Corp., Spiegel Inc., and Metropolitan Life. The county also has a high-tech corridor -- anchored by Argonne and Fermi national laboratories -- with major research centers for Amoco Corp., American Telphone & Telegraph Co., and Rockwell International Corp.
DuPage has experienced massive growth during the past 30 years. In 1960, the county's population was 313,459. In 1990, the population was 781,666, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The county also is relatively wealthy, with a per capita income of $24,958, making it the third-wealthiest county in the Midwest, behind Oakland County, Mich., and Lake County, Ill., according to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis.
But the county's wealth has not been able to solve all the problems associated with growth, such as increased costs for new schools, roads, and services. A 1990 study by the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois found the owner of a $150,000 home in DuPage County paid $3,539 in property taxes in 1988, an 82% increase from 1982.
Mr. Botti said the county has about $350 million worth of capital improvements -- including roads, sewers, and a new jail -- that need to be funded in the next five years. To avoid having to institute property tax increases to pay for those improvements, Mr. Botti has proposed issuing tax-exempt bonds, a marked departure for the historically pay-as-you go county, which has only $53 million of outstanding general obligation debt. That debt is rated AAA by Standard & Poor's Corp. and Aaa by Moody's Investors Service.
Request to Cut Budget
Paul Devine, a vice-president at Moody's Investors Service, said DuPage could readily issue another $350 million of debt, given its low current debt level and strong economy.
"Even if they added another $350 million of debt, that would by no means be excessive," he said.
Mr. Botti also has asked the county board to cut the county's $300 million budget by 10% and cut the current $59 million in annual property tax collections by 10% in the next fiscal year, which begins Dec. 1.
He also has instituted a five-year budget plan to assist in long-term planning.
Rising property taxes were a main reason Mr. Botti was able to score an upset victory last year in the Republican primary over Jack Knuepfer, a 12-year incumbent, and the main reason he entered the race in the first place.
"I thought the voters, citizens, and taxpayers were getting the short end of the stick," Mr. Botti said. "I didn't think the then administration, chairman of the county board, was providing the leadership to get us into the next century. All I saw was an increase in taxes."
Mr. Botti said officeholders have too often resigned themselves to continual budget and tax increases, rather than looking to cut waste and inefficiency.
"Why should taxpayers have to bear the burden of doing without, without a car, without travel, because of increased real estate taxes?" he asked. "Real estate taxes are the most oppressive form of taxes created, because it is not a true measurement of one's ability to pay. Income is the true measurement."
"The government has gotten people to expect that their taxes will be increased and they will have to do without. That's not the way it should be. Government should be doing without."
Mr. Botti said he will soon be using his position as a county-wide elected official to try to influence school boards in the county -- which collect about 65 cents of every property-tax dollar -- to also look to reduce their property tax rates.
He said it is important for elected officials to move quickly on what he sees as a growing property tax revolt before it explodes and causes great harm to necessary services.
"There's a revulsion by taxpayers towards taxes, they're sick and tired of having to pay real estate taxes." Mr. Botti said. "My fear is that you can only push people so far. When you push them over the brink, then their surgery becomes radical. They'll cut programs out that are necessary. Elected officials in DuPage County and around the country have to understand that time is running out."
Besides property taxes and capital improvements, Mr. Botti said a main concern of his is working with the private sector to ensure the construction of moderate-income housing in the county.
"I would not want to see DuPage County as only a place for the rich to live," he explained. "That's not good for DuPage County, not good for the people who would like to raise their kids in a very good school district and benefit from the sweat and tears of their predecessors who built this county to what it is today."
Mr. Botti, a partner in a Wheaton law firm, said the only major drawback so far to the job is the political fighting with board members loyal to the past county board president.
"It's very tough to come in here and take over a government that has been operated in the same way for 12 years, going over the same route for 12 years like a train," he said. "Just trying to turn it around is going to take time, but I think we'll turn it around.
"I get a lot of criticism," he continued. "If I do something, I don't get any credit, if I don't do something I get all the criticism in the world. I'm an outsider, and I came into an existing Republical organization that was in mourning after my victory. I've had resistance, but I think all in all we are making progress."
He added, however, he would not shy away from opponents who continued to reject his fiscal policies or who opposed his plan to pass an ordinance limiting county board members to two terms.
"When I talk about limitation of terms, cutting waste, I'm going to run up against old-line thinking and I'm going to create animosity," he said.