By Jim Hagerty
COUNTY JUSTICE CENTER — Although the Winnebago County Board says there’s room to cut more than $4 million from the sheriff’s department, Sheriff Gary Caruana said otherwise Thursday.
There’s no contention between the board and sheriff’s office. Both sides are working together amicably to find a solution. However, there has been a miscalculation of just how much the sheriff has in his spending plan.
“There was a baseline number from 2011, which was $25 million and some change, compared to $37 million as of today, which gave the impression that we had $5 million to play with,” Caruana said.
The county wants to cut that $5 million by $4.3 million to help close a looming budget hole of $6.8 million. The problem, according to the sheriff, is that the $5 million doesn’t exist and a hit of that magnitude would gouge his department, threatening county-wide public safety.
“In 2011, we were coming out of a deep recession,” the sheriff continued. “This department was just starting to come back, and the real baseline should have been used from 2009, which was $36 million and some odd change. The growth there was $946,000. We’ve only grown this department since then by one deputy.”
Not only has the number of deputies only grown by a single body, total department staffing has decreased from 402 to 370 employees.
“We are not exploding with people,” Caruana said. “This cut would devastate this department.”
That devastation would be felt immediately, he said. For example, the county would keep its supply of Narcan, used to treat suspected opioid overdoses. The drug has saved 72 lives in the last three years the sheriff’s office says, but there would be no officers to administer it.
And the department’s close working relationship with Rockford Police, other cities in the county, as well as the FBI, could end in wake of proposed cuts. The 911 center would likely see a shakeup, detectives could lose their jobs—all at the public’s peril.
“They need us and we need them,” Caruana said of neighboring police departments. “In this modern crime rate, we have to work together with all law enforcement agencies.”
The jail could be gravely affected, too. If the sheriff reduces staff, there’d be a cap on the number of inmates the department could house, meaning the county could be forced to outsource services to other jails and incur those costs. That leaves a potential union problem because of a looming AFSCME grievance that could require the county to employ a specific number of deputies—regardless if there’s money to pay for them. And that scenario could see the department hurtled into the red.
Currently, the sheriff’s department is on pace to end the fiscal year with a $200,000 surplus.
The sheriff said he hasn’t put a pen to paper to calculate what his proposed cuts would be, but said he will do so with the safety of the public and his department in mind.
“I understand the crisis situation we are in,” he said. “And I am willing to take a look at areas where we could cut and not cut [public] services and go from there.” R.
The Rock River Times will have more on this story as it develops.