County passes a $10 million 2020 budget

Board weighing safety tax option for new jail

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The Edgar County Board passed a $10 million budget at the Wednesday, Nov. 27, meeting. The new fiscal year starts Sunday, Dec. 1.

Of the $10.499 million in revenue, the county is anticipating $3.6 million from local taxpayers on a levy extension similar to the one from the last fiscal year. It is a tight budget with little room to spare as revenue is expected to exceed expenses by $69,969.

Board members devoted a lengthy discussion at the Monday, Nov. 25, study session to the possibility of placing a referendum question on the March 17 ballot asking voters to approve a safety tax on retail sales. A one-cent tax could generate up to $1 million in new revenue for use by sheriff’s department or perhaps to fund bond payments for a new jail.

A safety tax discussion in a prior meeting got a mixed reception from board members.

Board chairman Jeff Voigt said a permissible use of the safety tax is hiring an architect to do an in-depth evaluation of the jail to determine what changes are needed within and outside the building or if it will be more cost effective to build a new jail.

“If we pass a safety tax, my number one priority is to do something with the jail or build one,” said board member Dan Bruner.

“The building, even though it is older, is solid, but it needs updates,” said Voigt. “An architect can advise us on the future. I don’t want to tear it down if we don’t have to.”

John Chittick, who initially opposed a safety tax, suggested attaching a sunset to the proposal may make it more palatable to voters.

“We have a lot of problems that originate with staffing and lack of management and training at the jail,” said Voigt. “I’m not sure with the current money available we can cover the required staffing.”

Per Illinois Department of Corrections regulations, which has oversight responsibility at the jail, a minimum of two corrections officers must be on duty at all time. The jail, for many years, has frequently only had one officer overseeing the inmates.

Board member Derrick Lorenzen supports putting the question to voters, adding he does not oppose the idea of a sunset provision but he was unsure how far out to set the tax’s expiration.

“The longer we go not fixing problems, the more expensive it becomes,” said Lorenzen. “If we want to be nimble for the county we need this money. There are great ideas out there like a new jail or a public safety building, but there are no funds.”

The conversation noted the proposed tax is not attached to property. As a sales tax, people living outside of Edgar County coming here to shop will help pay it.

Another advantage to the safety tax is it becomes a dedicated fund, which means some of the other county money now going to the sheriff’s department can get applied elsewhere like courthouse maintenance.

“By getting these funds for the sheriff it frees up money that is nickel and diming us in other areas,” said Voigt, adding some citizens willing to form a committee that will work for passage of the tax has approached him voicing support for the idea.

The tax will be a discussion item during the Dec. 9 study session and a vote is needed by the Dec. 11 regular business meeting in order to meet filing deadlines to have a referendum question on the ballot.

In another matter at the Nov. 27 county board meeting, Voigt announced having received a letter from the Illinois Department of Agriculture advising the permit request for a confinement hog operation in Brouilletts Creek Township was withdrawn.

The board also set for review a 2009 ordinance regarding wind turbines because some Embarrass Township landowners have been approached by a wind farm developer.

Being a county board member requires an ability to roll with the punches as one problem after another keeps cropping up.

During the public comment section of the meeting, Freida Hixson asked the board to investigate her abrupt firing as director of the Edgar County Housing Authority. The housing authority is largely funded and overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The county board is responsible for appointing a local board directors for the operation that provides low-income housing in 200 apartments.

Hixson claimed she was unjustly dismissed by the board in order to bring back the retired former director in her stead. She alleged the board violates the open meetings act by having discussions outside of board meetings and has created a culture of cronyism.

“There was a double-standard as to what was appropriate for me and the former director,” she said.

She said prior to her predecessor’s retirement, a HUD review team found the Highland Court Apartments to be substandard.

“I turned public housing to high status,” said Hixson.

Her comments were echoed by two former housing authority employees, who said Hixson’s firing was not only without cause, it has upset tenants to the point of petitioning HUD to investigate.

Hixson asked board members to launch their own investigation.

“I feel this is a serious matter,” she said.

Speaking for the board, Voigt promised to review it and get back to her.