Poised for budget vote, board rushes to keep promise

The Winnebago County Board’s 2008 budget, appropriation ordinance and tax levies were read into the record Sept. 6. The board, which normally convenes on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, met a week early to provide for a three-week layover before voting on the $217.4 million budget Sept. 27. The 2008 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Some board members wanted to waste no time in passing a resolution supporting the creation of a Resource Intervention Center (RIC), a program aimed at alleviating the county’s stressed jail population by attempting to circumvent a life of crime for non-violent first-time offenders.

Misdemeanor charges would be erased from records of people who successfully complete rehabilitation, which includes a curriculum offered by Rock Valley College.

According to Court Services Director Vince Murphy, the RIC will provide educational services, alcohol and drug treatment, counseling and job training. Down the road, Murphy also hopes to incorporate prostitution abatement.

“We have not found a program that’s really, exactly what we’re trying to do here,” Murphy stated. “I think the closest thing that we found is in Cook County, where they have a day reporting center program. It’s not quite as extensive or as involved as what we’re looking at doing here.”

Murphy added a “notable reduction” in crime rates should be noticeable within three to five years.

Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) accepts that results will not be seen overnight, but that something has to be done to eliminate the threat of jail overcrowding.

“Recidivism is just a huge issue to us,” Christiansen noted. The new Winnebago County Justice Center’s inmate population continues to linger around 700, while being staffed to handle a maximum of 800 prisoners. The county’s cost-per-participant at the RIC is a fraction of the cost to house them in the jail.

Because it is not yet known which alternative programs will be funded for 2008, some board members wondered what the hurry is in establishing the RIC.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Rick Pollack (R-13) acknowledged he’d been asked to layover the resolution, but after more than a year in development, Pollack felt confident in moving the program ahead. Pollack added approval of the RIC was simply a matter of keeping a promise made to the taxpayers.

“This is compassionate, and this is a business decision,” said Pollack, describing the RIC as a win-win proposition. “If we can keep people from returning to the jail, plugging up the court system, from a business model, that’s saving money. From a compassionate model, it’s healing lives.”

Mary Ann Aiello (R-9) agreed the RIC appears to be a worthwhile venture, but that she’d prefer postponing the vote until it becomes clearer which alternative programs will share in $1.6 million worth of county grants.

“We still have work to do on those other alternative programs to find out how it’s all gonna coordinate together,” Aiello argued. “This is going to be a $1.2 million process that we’re spending on this resource center, which is almost as much as we’re spending on the alternative programs.”

Aiello said, to the agencies who’ve worked so hard drafting their grant proposals, approving the RIC makes the county board appear to be rushing into something without having done their homework.

Dave Fiduccia (R-4), chairman of the grant selection sub-committee, asked colleagues to vote on the matter that night.

“There are several grants that I’ve reviewed personally that have already stated that the RIC center would help them,” Fiduccia relayed. “We would be saving the county money in the long run by having this in place now.”

Doug Aurand (D-3), who also favored an immediate vote, said board members should give the RIC a chance.

“Let’s tell people this is the direction we’re going,” Aurand urged. “If we hesitate tonight, aren’t we sending a different message to the public—that we don’t wanna go this way?

“The fact that we’re being first in trying to do something like this, it doesn’t bother me at all,” Aurand added. “We might come across a solution that will not only work in Winnebago County, but will be followed by other counties throughout this country.”

Pete MacKay (R-5), on the other hand, said waiting three weeks isn’t going to hurt anybody.

“There’ve been way too many times in the past that we’ve jumped into a huge spending program, only to find out that we didn’t really know as much as we thought we did,” MacKay recalled.

Bob Hastings (D-13) believes the RIC, which would coordinate the other alternative programs, should be established first.

“I think this is a key part of the puzzle,” Hastings indicated, “getting this RIC center in place, and then let all the other ones fall into place.”

Angie Goral (D-7) is all for the RIC, but said she, like Aiello, would have liked to have first known which alternative programs would be implemented in the new fiscal year.

Chairman Christiansen reported grants won’t be decided until November, but that, through committee, board members would ultimately decide which alternative programs will receive funding.

It gradually became clear most board members favored getting the vote out of the way before the Sept. 27 meeting.

Jim Webster (R-2) concluded, “We can talk about crime and crime reduction all night long, or we can do something about it by voting ‘yes’ on this tonight.”

Reiterating her stance, Aiello moved to layover a vote on the resolution. Her motion was defeated in a 22-5 vote. Paul Gorski (D-5), MacKay and John F. Sweeney (R-14) were as much support as Aiello could muster.

The resolution supporting the creation of the RIC prevailed. Once the 2008 budget is approved, the center could be up and running within three months, although no site has been chosen.

from the Sept. 12 – 18, 2007, issue

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