County staff slashes cause courthouse logjam

ROCKFORD — Entering the Winnebago County Courthouse was far from as easy as it used to be Monday, Oct. 23.

That’s because a staff of nearly 60 officers who worked security at the facility has been reduced to around a dozen, and a special entrance for lawyers has been closed. The situation comes by way of $4.2 million in budget cuts to the sheriff’s department.

A line starting at the door of the former Public Safety Building began forming around 8 a.m. By 8:30, it stretched east down the side of the building toward the corner of West State and North Church streets.

Everyone from lawyers, jurors and litigants were in line—which before Monday never formed outside the building, not even when well-known trials were being held inside.

Lawyers commonly entered through a door at the corner of West State and North Church, but that door, also the public exit, is no longer.

“It took me 35 minutes to get into the building this morning,” attorney Ali Leonard said.

In the past, some lawyers used the PSB entrance and would be waved through if recognized by the staff of part-time reserve deputies who manned the electronic security turnstiles. There’s just a couple of reassigned deputies at the entrance now but they’re not yet familiar with the attorneys.

“We are showing are ARDC cards, but it’s not making our wait times any less as of now,” Leonard said.

What is helping is an easement of sorts on a no-bag policy announced last week. For the public, bags, including purses, are prohibited. Diaper bags and medical bags are permitted; attorneys are exempt. But, those who paid $25 this year to use the lawyer’s entrance are out of luck. Dozens of attorneys paid the fee and used the door dozens of times per week.

Lines were also longer at the Winnebago County Justice Center Monday, but nothing like the courthouse backup.

Chief Judge Joe McGraw and Sheriff Gary Caruana have been vocal about the budget cuts. Both fear they will take an overall toll on public safety.

“The likelihood of one of our citizens falling prey to a violent crime is greater here than in the city of Chicago,” McGraw said, adding that he would not tolerate a reduction in jail and courthouse security.

In August, the judge filed a lawsuit against the Winnebago County Board over the proposed cuts. The board approved them on Sept. 26, as part of a FY18 budget that includes a total of $6.8 million in slashes and more than 100 jobs. More than 10 percent of Caruana’s staff is now laid off.

Caruana said he was led to believe in early August that he could hire additional deputies, only to be faced with more than $4 million in cuts just a month later. He said the situation came by way of an error accounting official should have avoided.

“They used 2011 as a baseline for cutting the budget,” he said. “That was an anomaly year when we were coming out of the Great Recession. They should have used numbers from 2009 to 2017.”

The result, the sheriff said, gave a false impression that his department could spare around $5 million. He said he was later preparing for cuts of $1.5 million. And, while it would have been a sizable reduction, it would not have threatened public safety, he said.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney said the cuts were unavoidable because the county has relied on its reserve funds for the past 12 years, spending about $18 million to balance things.

Government officials familiar with the situation told The Times the first-term chairman and sheriff, while maintaining good relations publicly, are at odds. Sources added that communications over the budget situation have broken down at times, leaving room for politically motivated narratives to creep in above public safety concerns. But members of country government said they expected a middle-ground to be found in the ongoing budget battle.

By all accounts, Haney inherited a gravely mismanaged office, one partly run by a purchasing director who made off with $451, 353 from the coffers. The investigation also reached former Chairman Scott Christiansen, who came under fire over chocolate bars and a sauna purchased with county funds. The chocolate bars were purchased to fix a spending mistake, allegedly made by purchasing director Sally Claassen, while the sauna–installed at his house–was bought to help Christiansen with nagging health problems.

He said he brought the sauna to the basement of the Public Safety Building after deciding it was not helping him. That was in July 2015, hours after learning Claassen was being investigated by the FBI for using a county credit card for vacations and home repair projects. R.

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