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Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008 01:37 am

Division problem

Yet another battle of Springfield vs. Some Other Illinois City is waged, courtesy of the governor

Four hours into last week's hearing about relocating a state facility from Springfield to Harrisburg, enthusiasm on the part of Illinois transportation-safety employees hadn't diminished.

Packed into the first few rows of seats in the Capitol rotunda, some of them chomping on fistfuls of popcorn, the neon-green-clad workers intermittently whooped, hollered, and booed as they followed the proceedings on a giant screen.

As much as the phrase "This is not about Springfield versus Harrisburg" is uttered, the arrangement of Springfield boosters on one side of the chamber and plum-shirted citizens of Harrisburg on the other, suggested otherwise.

In September, the bipartisan legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability delivers its recommendation on whether to take 140 jobs from Springfield, which is experiencing its highest unemployment numbers in almost two decades, and give them to Harrisburg, where a 10 percent joblessness rate eclipses the state average.

Local opposition to the move, which, IDOT estimates, will cost Sangamon County $295,000 per year in economic production, has been fierce and fueled largely by mistrust of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. During the COGFA hearing, state Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, derided Blagojevich, who did not attend.

"What a cruel situation, what a cruel thing for a governor to do to come out, make a position — you're either going to win or you're either going to lose. That's not fair," Brauer said.

If Springfield wins, the loser will be Saline County, in southeastern Illinois, which, according to the transportation department, stands to gain close to 250 jobs and a $12 million boost to the regional economy. IDOT plans to purchase and remodel a building at the proposed Harrisburg site, which currently houses the Southeastern Illinois College Foundation, for about $800,000, compared with the $1.7 million taxpayers now pay to rent the IDOT annex, located at 3215 Executive Park Dr.

Milton R. Sees, IDOT's director, has characterized the proposed "geographic relocation" as a win-win for all parties, having a "negligible" effect on Springfield. The city of Springfield, he maintains, won't lose property taxes because the taxes will continue to be paid by to California-based Government Property Fund LLC, which owns the annex building. He also noted that 13 employees in the division have already transferred to other agencies.

"We can help them [Harrisburg] without hurting the economy of Sangamon County," Sees said.

In response to Sees' testimony that Blagojevich has publicly stated, but not guaranteed in writing, that Springfield workers' jobs will be protected, state Rep. Richard Meyers, R-Macomb, offered: "We've heard his public statements before."

Myers' remark elicited such applause that the clapping of rotunda audience members could be heard inside the second-floor meeting room.

Brauer, sitting in for state Rep. Patricia Bellock, R-Westmont, also wanted to know whether relocating the office will increase productivity and whether stimulating economic development in the state is part of IDOT's mission.

"In terms of efficiencies, I do not think that the geographic location of that particular operation is directly linked to its ability to be effective," Sees said.

He added: "Our highway system and our transportation network is the very lifeblood of the economy of the state of Illinois. Without our roads and bridges, there is no Illinois economy in my opinion."

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

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