DIXON – The Lee County sheriff got half of what he wanted at Tuesday’s County Board meeting: Members voted unanimously to allow the Sheriff’s Department to hire one more road deputy.
Last fall, Sheriff John Varga asked the board for two more deputies, positions that the county eliminated a few years ago as part of budget cuts. The sheriff has 13 now.
Varga first made his request a month after the board voted to allow then-State’s Attorney Henry Dixon to hire another prosecutor and a clerk. The new state’s attorney, Anna Sacco-Miller, who beat Dixon in the November election, said she didn’t need the positions.
During Tuesday’s discussion, board member Allyn Buhrow, R-Ashton, asked why the board would allow only one deputy. He said he understood that it was the result of a negotiated agreement, but he said it might set a precedent in how department heads seek budget increases.
“He [sheriff] has been direct about what he needs,” Buhrow said. “What does he do next time? Ask for four deputies if he only needs one? Will that be the strategy?”
Member Greg Witzleb, R-Dixon, said he would prefer to have two more deputies. But the former police officer said he supported adding one deputy now because he “got the vibe” from other members that hiring two would be out of line in a tight budget.
After the vote for the deputy, many members applauded. Varga thanked the board.
The starting pay for a new deputy is $40,500 a year. With full benefits, including insurance, the total cost would be $63,800, Varga said.
The board also voted unanimously to increase the budget for the public defender’s office. Public Defender Bob Thompson had asked for a $50,000 stipend because of extra time his office is spending on homicide cases. The board decided to give $31,500, or $3,500 a month, for the rest of the fiscal year. Public defenders are considered part-time positions.
Board Chairman Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, said that the money would come from a contingency fund but that the county would offset it with the $100,000 saved from the unfilled positions in the office of state’s attorney.
He said he and Sacco-Miller had agreed she would have to come before the board if she wanted to spend any of the $100,000.
“They could choose to ignore us because it’s in their budget, but I doubt they would do that,” Ketchum said.
Over the last few months, the board delayed a decision on hiring deputies because of a debate over conducting a countywide staffing study. Such a study was a part of a long-term financial plan the board approved last year.
Some members said the study would be too expensive for a financially struggling county.
Dick Binder, R-Compton, however, called Tuesday for an independent review.
“This is a one-time cost,” he told the board. “Our goal is for all county services to operate in a highly economical and efficient manner.”
Witzleb had concerns.
“If and when this review is done and it says we should hire two or three additional personnel in [the Sheriff’s Department], are we going to do it or not do it?” he said. “Are we going to pick and choose what we want out of the review?”
He said members first should “get off our butts” and visit with departments heads to find out what their needs are.
The board voted 13-7 to proceed with the study. A committee will issue a request for proposals from consultants.