Winnebago county-wide officials bypass county board budget statutes

In last month’s article, “Local taxpayers affected by unfunded state mandates,” it was determined to be a challenge for local taxing districts to balance their budget with additional expenditures being continuously imposed upon them from Springfield.

It is no less challenging having some of our county-wide independently elected officials and department heads adding additional taxpayer dollars to their departmental budget allocations, while bypassing county board approval, which is required by state law.

This year, Winnebago County faces a deficit above $4M dollars between decreasing revenues, unfunded mandates and additional spending above the budget by county-wide elected officials.

Statute 55 ILCS 5 requires the annual county budget to be approved by a simple majority of the Winnebago County Board – 11 votes – then allocate monies to department heads and elected officials based on our projected revenues from all sources.

In order to increase the allocated budget of an elected official or department head, a budget amendment is required from the official and needs a two-thirds vote of the entire board – 14 votes – for approval to be in compliance with Illinois statutes.

Section 6-1008 of 55ILCS 5 states that, “Any person who violates, or who neglects or fails to comply with terms of this Division 6-1 budget process, commits a Class B misdemeanor.”

With the county’s latest unfunded mandate from Springfield, this is not the first time the county board has been bypassed by the elected officials, who spend the money first, then seek board approval after the fact.

In this mandate, Court Services have already requisitioned, interviewed and hired four detention officers to implement the Illinois Supreme Court “unshackling rule” without final approval of the county board’s budget amendment.

Chairman Haney in his 60 Day Review explicitly states that “basic levels of accountability and transparency must be the cornerstone of how we do business.” The chairman also stated that “We based decisions on priority.”

But the county-wide elected officials want their autonomy respected. Any respect due the county board is apparently on a different playing field. Accountability, transparency and priorities between elected officials will require collaboration and agreement.

The county-wide elected officials even sought the opinion of the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office, which opined, “As independently elected officials, these department heads are not accountable to the County Board for the operation of their departments;” despite the fact the county board determines their budget.

The opinion also concluded that the county board, which holds the power of the purse strings, in certain obligatory expenditures, such as the Chief Judge’s four detention hires under an Illinois Supreme Court mandate, that the board must approve the budget amendment or risk a “mandamus action” by the judiciary to force payment.

Of course, this risk assumes that all other expenditures and services within the department are mandatory; otherwise the budget amendment would not have been needed in the first place, since a lower priority service would surely have provided the needed funds; as if logic or common sense applies to any form of government.

The budgeting process needs to implement a “zero based budget,” for the elected officials, which was discussed at last month’s administrative staff and county board members retreat, which could prevent “consecutive annual deficits” expended by a number of our county-wide departments.

Of course, the county-wide elected department heads, according to the State’s Attorney office’s opinion will unilaterally make the final decisions on staffing, salaries, etc., because all lie within the purview of the elected officials.

The County Chairman, the Chief Financial Officer and administrative staff must then interpret transparent budget requirements from the department heads and elected officials to provide at least the minimal data needed by the county board to meet its fiduciary duty to state statutes and their constituents.

The county board is not refusing to fund required Court Services based on one unfunded mandate. Court Services should use their existing funds from a lower priority service to provide whatever is needed to implement the Illinois Supreme Court rule.

Court Services isn’t the only department that requires funding. Should other officials cut their department deficits even more to fund the Court Services “mandamus action” if implemented?

It’s fortunate for taxpayers that all the departments don’t have the courts to force the county board to spend money the county doesn’t have.

With our current deficit, the county board needs to request departments to start cutting spending, rather than increasing spending, to balance their budgets just as taxpayers have to do.