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You Paid For It: Is the Latest Rockford Survey Worthy or A Waste?

New 'Vital Signs' story took big bucks and years to complete. Why some think it was a waste of time and money.
Editor's Note:  Due to a technical error, the entire story did not post online.  It has been repaired.  At the bottom of this article, you will find a link to the complete RMAP 'Vital Signs' study of the Rockford region.

ROCKFORD -- Rockford area taxpayers have funded study after study after study -- with little to show for them.  Frustration over Rockford's willingness to fund studies with no results partly led to the 'Transform Rockford' movement.

When Woodward CEO Tom Gendron sat down with anchor Mimi Murphy before he launched the Transform Rockford movement - he discussed Rockford's unproductive tendency to study problems - and not solve them.

"There's been 40 studies done in the last 25 years," Gendron said, "So we've been good at commissioning  studies but we haven't taken the action."

It's called 'paralysis … by analysis.'  Spending tax money on studies to produce data no one will ever act upon.  And the latest study to document Rockford's many woes took three years, more than a hundred interviews plus to collection of massive amounts of data to produce the 227 page Rockford Region Vital Signs report, done by a little known organization named RMAP, short for the 'Rockford Metropolitican Agency for Planning.'  Funded by tax dollars from Rockford, Belvidere, Loves Park, Machesney Park, Winnebago and Boone Counties and a federal match. President Steve Ernst says RMAP was built to lead regional planning efforts.

"The idea," Ernst says, "was that if we could create this umbrella planning document that they (meaning local public officials) could simply concentrate on this and all the other planning efforts would kind of fall underneath this."

With a staff of 7 and a one million dollar per year budget, RMAP painstakingly details how the region measures up in 16 different categories.  From Transportation and Civic Vitality to Education and Biodiversity.  RMAP then creates a long list of objectives and measures how we're meeting them.  A thumbs up sign means good!  A thumbs down means not so good!  The 'Vital Signs' report has a lot of 'thumbs down' symbols.

In fact , the first Transform Rockford meeting used findings from the RMAP study to highlight the brutal facts that plague the city.  But RMAP is different from Transform Rockford in two key ways.  Its funded by tax dollars - and that long list of objectives were not decided in Rockford --They were decided in Washington.

In 2010, the Obama administration gave RMAP federal tax dollars to change its mission from being a transportation planning agency to pushing what federal bureaucrats see as best practices for 'Sustainable Development.'  RMAP would now hold local government accountable for goals like "educating local business owners on the benefits of paying workers a livable wage" or "create an urban growth boundary" with a goal of no more development of farmland.  "We see it as a good housekeeping seal of approval," Ernst says in describing the objectives in the report.

But Congressional Republicans see the 'Sustainable Cities' effort differently.  Congressman Paul Ryan (R) WI-1st accused the Obama Administration of using it to impose "... an urban-utopian fantasy through an unprecedented intrusion of the Federal Government into the shaping of local communities."

And the report does seem to push the President Obama's agenda .  RMAP's chapter on community health, for example, cites the benefits of Obamacare, but nothing about the tremendous charity work of Rockford's crusader clinic to help the uninsured.  And Ernst concedes funding for the sustainable cities movement has been tied up by politics.  "It's a very party line topic," he says.

And some believe it is a wasteful expense.  Rockford Council Member Teena Newburg -- an Independent -- voted against funding for RMAP.  "I have not been fully convinced that RMAP is a necessary office that we need."  In part because Rockford funds RMAP with tax dollars that are supposed to be used to repair the city's roads.  "The motor fuel tax when that was passed that was to be used for the roads and highways in Rockford Illinois," she says.

Newburg also questions why road repair money is being used to push Rockford to do things like  "Decrease truancy rate by offering positive reinforcement programs" in our schools or "Publicize list of endangered and protected species in the region."  "I don't believe in studies just to have a study that you can point to," Newburg says.

Republican Rockford Councilman Tim Durkee supports funding for RMAP.  "You have to acknowledge the strength of the data RMAP does generate," he says.even as he concedes that *how* it is funded is less than ideal.  "In part, I agree with Paul Ryan.  The federal government does have an overly intrusive mark on our local communities. We get community block grant funding, and often times, the federal government has their idea of what they want to do with that money, but when it comes down to the local level, it doesn't make any sense."

Like when the RMAP report pushes the region to "promote natural gas for use in vehicles" to combat global warming even though you couldn't buy or service a natural gas powered vehicle in Rockford if you wanted to.  "For some reason, the federal government thinks they know better," Durkee says.

But Durkee says RMAP is important for getting public development dollars.  For example, RMAP data was crucial to getting money for the major rebuilding effort on S. Main St., and private employers use RMAP data as well.  "If a Trader Joe's or a Meijer store is interested in putting up stores here, they're going to go to an organization like RMAP and start and start culling data out."

So why not focus on projects like roads and Meijer stories  -- and not on objectives like "Mitigate the urban heat island effect by increasing the amount of green roots, sustainable roof coverings, and foilage."  Durkee says that's because "RMAP is the creation of the federal government to make sure their purposes are met."

And Ernst says when it comes to federal dollars, Rockford has a to play, to get paid.  "We're trying to encapsulate all of the energy going on in the region, and trying to make our federal partners understand that we truly have a comprehensive plan of how to make our region more sustainable and to raise the quality of life here."

Even if local lawmakers say they have no intention of acting on the vast majority of RMAP's recommendations in 'Vital Signs,' and of course, you paid for it.

Rockford city taxpayers alone will pay just under $150,000 on RMAP in 2014 with another $75,000 in federal matching funds.  Belvidere, Machesney Park, Loves Park and Winnebago and Boone Counties also contribute tax dollars to RMAP.

To see the full report as a PDF file, click on this link:  http://www.ourvitalsigns.com/RPSD.pdf

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