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Inmate lockdown lawsuits influence sheriff’s budget dispute

The number of lawsuits filed by the inmates against Winnebago County Sheriff Caruana currently stand at twenty-one with undoubtedly more on the way. This is the inmate’s response to an unanticipated upsurge in the number of lockdown hours triggered by the sheriff in the months immediately following the layoff of 10 correction officers.

The lawsuits are identical except for the name of the inmate, suggesting an organized campaign to reduce the lockdowns. How did the county get into this position?

First, county spending has exceeded revenues. At least two independently elected officials are spending more this year than their allocated budget funding, which is significantly contributing to the $7 million dollar deficit.

Last year the state cut 10% of the county’s income tax revenue, charged a 2% sales tax collection fee, skimmed funds from the corporate property replacement tax while unfunded state mandates continued unabated. State actions held $2.3 million dollars from the county’s revenue in 2017, while local brick and mortar sales tax revenue further declined.

Meanwhile, both the sheriff and the 17th Circuit Court’s Chief Judge McGraw are threatening to restore their budgets by filing lawsuits to remove the funding reductions made by the county board conforming to state statute 55ILCS 5.6-1003, which decrees that after the county board adopts the annual budget, no further appropriations shall be made without the affirmative vote by two-thirds of all the members constituting such board.

Additional budget amendments were not approved due to a decrease in the General Fund, the Public Safety Sales Tax and health insurance reserves. These reserves have been depleted by over $18 million dollars in the last 12 years!

The sheriff has now retained an attorney, at taxpayer expense, to discover possibilities of legal action to restore his budget as a public safety issue rather than under the budget statutes.

If successful in their efforts to restore their respective budgets, including additional budget amendments, the county would be forced to further reduce our dwindling reserve funds, ultimately leading to borrowing from future tax revenues.

The just concluded contract negotiations with the sheriff’s deputies will result in an additional $1.1 million dollar increase over three years further reducing the reserves.

The sheriff did not even send one representative to the combined meeting of the Public Safety and Finance Committees this past Tuesday to answer any questions that committee members might have had prior to approving the sheriff-deputy’s contract!

Meanwhile, Chief Judge McGraw doled out 3% annual raises to about 100 staff for four years (12% increases) plus promotions, while the county administration is struggling with million dollar deficits, further reducing our reserves. The chief judge didn’t require county board approval for these staff benefits according to state statutes.

The fund reserves not only affect county credit ratings but also support cash flow during the year in the event funding is needed to cover payroll, purchases, salaries, etc. without requiring a line of credit (LOC) with financial institutions plus interest.

The sheriff and chief judge are also demanding that health and life insurance, human resources and even FICA and IMRF pensions be included in their budgets to allow them flexibility to transfer expenses between the funds when an opportunity exists – totally indifferent to duplication costs and the lack of expertise by their department staffs in these areas.

At a Jan. 9 Editorial Board meeting at the Rockford Register Star, the sheriff stated that the jail is so understaffed that inmates are on long hours of lockdown on a daily basis and warned, “We are going to get sued.” The sheriff should have been careful what he wished for!

At that meeting, the sheriff submitted a chart that indicated after the dismissal of 10 corrections officers out of 150 officers (4%), the average lockdown hours for the two preceding months was 429 hours and in the two subsequent months the average lockdown hours surged to 1936 hour average – an increase of 451%!

The lockdowns are certainly timely for the sheriff’s new request for 31 correction officers, seven deputies and six dispatchers in a $1.82 million dollar Budget Amendment to be presented next month and with the correction officer’s contract negotiations just around the corner.

The only solution for the county board to maintain its budget reserves, with the sheriff hiring correction officers and paying overtime, would be to limit the number of sheriff deputies under statute 55ILCS 5 3-6008. “Each sheriff may appoint one or more deputies, not exceeding the number allowed by the county board of his or her county. (Source: P.A. 86-962; 87-738.)”

However, due to the state budget statutes being totally ignored or legally challenged by the sheriff or the chief judge, one might anticipate that this state statute will also follow the same path.

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