Sheriff, chairman clash over deputies

July 29, 2018

The chairman of the Kankakee County Board has accused the sheriff of trying to “bully” the board over a proposal to add patrol deputies.

This week, Sheriff Mike Downey renewed his push for the County Board to approve a dozen deputies throughout the next three years, replacing most of the 15 deputies who were laid off in 2014.

He told the board’s Finance Committee he needed four deputies as soon as possible. He noted the county jail’s contracts with the federal government and other counties bring in millions for the county, saying the addition of deputies would only take a fraction of that money.

When a County Board member asked Downey whether he could provide his proposal in writing, he replied, “Are we going to kick it down the road further?”

While Downey, a Republican, expressed support for reducing the county’s budget deficit, he said it was “unfair to ask our department or any other department to get back to zero in three years, so we’re going to leave you hanging out to dry.”

Board chairman Andy Wheeler, R-Kankakee, said everyone supported more sheriff’s deputies, but he pointed out the county’s budget difficulties.

“At the end of this year, we’ll still be a million dollars in the hole,” Wheeler said during the committee’s meeting Wednesday.

He said the county already was planning to pay for two sheriff’s security positions in the county annex, which houses the probation and public defender departments. The county recently decided to secure that building in response to what officials say are threats to employees’ safety.

“We can’t spend money before we have the money. That’s how we got into this situation,” Wheeler said. “You have our psychological commitment (for more deputies) over the next few years, but we can’t bind future boards. We can’t spend money we don’t have. That would be irresponsible.”

Downey interjected that the Finance Committee had just agreed to spend up to $25,000 for a flood control study.

“And proudly voted on that by the way,” Wheeler said.

“Money you don’t have,” Downey shot back.

Wheeler said the county also recently gave money to the sheriff to buy an X-ray machine for building security.

“We have given and given and given. Then you ask for 12 people. You try to bully the board with that and threaten to take your ball home like you have done repetitively over the years,” the chairman said.

“What?” the sheriff asked.

“If you keep threatening the board with that stuff, you can’t expect we’re not going to have adverse reactions to that,” Wheeler said.

“OK, Mr. Chairman,” Downey said.

Board member Ron Kinzinger, R-Bourbonnais, proposed a compromise, giving the sheriff authority to hire two more patrol deputies in this year’s budget, an expenditure he said would be offset with the jail’s out-of-county income.

Wheeler responded that Kinzinger’s proposal would violate a 2013 board resolution that established guidelines on reducing the deficit in the county’s main account.

“I don’t want any misconception that we’re sticking it to the sheriff’s department or that they’re bringing in all the money and we’re doing nothing for them,” Wheeler said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can. They are keeping the county going.”

Without the jail’s out-of-county money, he said, “things would look a lot different here. It’s not like they’re not appreciated.”

Kinzinger said the resolution is a set of goals, not a policy the board must follow.

“There are times when you have to make decisions on current conditions,” he said.

Kinzinger’s proposal failed 5-3. Voting against it were Wheeler and Republicans Carol Webber and Jim Vickery, as well as Democrats George Washington and Mike LaGesse. Kinzinger, Republican Mike Hildebrand and Democrat Elisabeth Dunbar supported the measure.

After the vote, Wheeler said, “Those positions will be included in next year’s budget.”

He said he expected the county to be out of its budget hole by February or March.

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