Agreement would allow sheriff to hire 10 corrections officers in lockdown aftermath
By Jim Hagerty
and Shane Nicholson
ROCKFORD — An agreement between Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana and County Board Chairman Frank Haney to hire 10 corrections officers at the Winnebago County Jail is expected to be in front of the Finance and Public Safety committees next week.
Reached Monday, the tentative agreement gives Caruana the green light on spending $350,000 to rehire the officers he lost last October when 64 department-wide positions were eliminated because of budget cuts.
If county board committees approve the budget amendment, it will go before the full board a week later. The allotment would be enough to fund the hires through Sept. 30.
The agreement comes as the number of inmates to sue the sheriff over excessive lockdowns at the jail swelled to 64 as of Monday morning. The Illinois Department of Corrections issued a report stating the jail’s lockdown times are not in step with state standards and recommended the jail hire more staff.
“Starting last week, the sheriff and I spent a number of hours talking about a wide range of issues,” said Haney. “There are short-term and long-term concerns to evaluate, and the talks around those were productive.”
In the interim, Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond said he has been able to cut lockdown time by about 60 percent by having guards work overtime, something he said is not a viable long-term plan. It’s costly and taxing on the officers.
“It’s gotten so when the officers are not volunteering we have had to mandate overtime,” Redmond said. “And we don’t like to do that.”
Some officers would still put in extra hours after the rehires because the sheriff says the jail is still understaffed by about 22 percent, the figure the IDOC report showed. The report showed that since 2007, the jail’s average daily population has increased by 20 percent while the number of guards has decreased.
Haney and Caruana have locked horns over those figures. Haney says IDOC should have used 2012, when there were more than 1,000 inmates per day, as a baseline. Since 2012, the guard-to-inmate ratio has not changed enough to warrant excessive lockdowns or the claim that the jail is understaffed, Haney said.
In 2012, there were 174 corrections officers. Today, with about 800 inmates per day, there are roughly 150 officers.
Caruana was expected to cut $4.3 million from his budget but later stated he was not going to exceed the estimated $2.5 million he made in the first round of layoffs in October.
The money to rehire the 10 corrections officers is expected to come from the county’s reserve funds. Details of what the long-term plan will look like have not been announced.
One solution is to spread budget cuts over a number of years to help mitigate their impact. What could stand in the way of that option are limited reserve funds that could require the county to incur debt.
“This is not a perfect plan. It doesn’t solve all of the county’s problems,” Haney said. “It’s a small give in an area that was a pressing need for the sheriff.”
If nothing changes within the county budget, reserve funds will run out sometime during 2019, county sources told The Times. Currently, Winnebago County has about three months of cash reserves on hand.
“To Sheriff Caruana’s credit, he has made a big chunk of the overall cut the board asked for,” the chairman said Tuesday. “But he has asked for time to get to that final number more strategically.”
Since 2012, the sheriff has seen an increase in county funding of more than $5.5 million. But county officials say a large percentage of that increase has been tied up in compensation and benefits increases, not additional staffing.
Four union contracts are currently hanging over the county’s finances, two of which directly impact on the public safety budget. The Fraternal Order of Police, which covers the county’s deputies, saw a $1.1 million funding increase for the next three years in their recent contract negotiations. And ongoing discussions with AFSCME, the state’s largest public sector union which represents corrections officers at the county jail, will also impact on the current year’s budget.
Another lingering issue is the fate of the Public Safety Building, which the Rockford Police Department exited in 2017. Maintenance and operational expenses for the PSB were not included in the current fiscal year’s budget, and the estimated $1.5 million it will cost to raze the structure will have to be revisited, officials said.
The chairman’s office expects the county to come to decision on the PSB sometime during 2018, and officials hope to execute a plan beginning in 2019.
Administration officials have said they hope an open review of county staffing could offset some of those sticking costs. But without a dramatic overhaul of the county’s financial status, deficit spending of recent years will soon turn to systemic debt, something that the chairman warns will cause more headaches if not dealt with.
“We don’t have a choice but to be open to some changes internally and some more cuts internally,” Haney said. “We still need to get there. We still need to do these things because we’re not on a sustainable path.”
Still, some board members were hesitant to wave the flag of victory over this week’s agreement. One board member The Times spoke to said more discussions are needed to find what other expenses can be cut to offset the $350,000 the sheriff has clawed back, adding that they expect Caruana to come back to the board for more funds sooner rather than later.
District-8 Republican Eli Nicolosi said he was happy with the outcome of the discussions between the chairman and sheriff.
“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” he said by phone Tuesday. “We’re happy to see money that was desperately needed for these corrections officers and for the jail.”
But Nicolosi added that he’s worried about what comes next given the upcoming November election for sheriff.
“This is a token effort, ultimately, and we need more for public safety. Taking this hardline stance against giving anything to the sheriff, then restoring this $350,000 to the department’s budget in the middle of an election—it doesn’t sit well with me.”
However, some believe the still-to-come debate within the county board regarding the funding fix could result in long-term gains for public safety.
“We have board members who want to be part of the discussion,” said one official. “They have questions that need answered. If we commit to exhausting those questions, then we’re going to land in a good spot.” R.