Ill. county may raid trash cash to hire jail staff

Winnebago County may siphon $350,000 from an economic development fund to hire COs at the county jail

By Chris Green
Rockford Register Star, Ill.

ROCKFORD, Ill. — Winnebago County may siphon $350,000 from an economic development fund to hire correctional officers at the county jail.

The idea came about Monday after the County Board failed to approve more than $855,000 worth of "host fee" grants this year to boost local economic development projects and programs. Board members David Boomer, R-4, and Jim Webster, R-2, convinced their colleagues that host fee dollars do not have to be strictly used for economic development. Instead, they floated the idea of using some of the money to pay for Sheriff Gary Caruana's anticipated budget amendment request this week of $350,000.

No decision was made, and the idea will be sent to a County Board committee so that board members can vet the proposal further.

Last week, County Board Chairman Frank Haney and Caruana announced they had reached an agreement, pending County Board approval, to hire 10 correctional officers at the Winnebago County Jail at a cost of $350,000. The hires would address a shortage of correctional officers in the jail that has resulted in long periods of lockdowns that prompted lawsuits from inmates.

At the time, Haney said the money — enough to fund the salaries of the corrections officers through Sept. 30 — would most likely come from unspecified reserve funds.

Monday, Boomer touted public safety and roads as taking precedence over economic development.

"We recommend that we commit $1 million to support public safety in our courts and policing and support the depleting road maintenance program, with $350,000 (of the $1 million) going to public safety immediately," he said.

Webster added, "We are being sued by the courts to restore their budget and the chairman has negotiated with the sheriff for an additional $350,000 budget increase with maybe more to come. Something needs to be done. If we don't stop deficit spending we will run out of funds and then what will we do? Borrow more money? Raise taxes? Who knows?"

Boomer's and Webster's proposal to support public safety and road maintenance with host fee dollars is not a long-term fix, but Webster said, "What it does is help us deal with our courts, police, and roads in the short run without adding to our deficit."

The county's host fee fund is generated by fees paid by haulers who dump trash at Winnebago Landfill. The fund was established to provide dedicated revenue for economic development throughout the county. But since its inception, the county has maintained a loose definition of what qualifies as economic development and thus, what those fees can be spent on. Capital development, community development, infrastructure, and workforce are four categories of economic development as defined by Haney's administration.

Haney said he was not opposed to sending the matter back to committee for more discussion, but reminded board members that they swept $500,000 from the host fee reserve fund last fall to balance the fiscal 2018 budget.

He also said, "One thing I would caution, and it needs to be said, is if the County Board begins to use host fee dollars for operational purposes, for example staff salaries, then there is a very good possibility that it becomes part of the discussion at the negotiation table (for future union contracts) because that would be a break in precedent."

©2018 Rockford Register Star, Ill.

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