DIXON — Lee County Sheriff John Varga touted his experience and his relationship with the County Board at a candidates forum Tuesday. His opponent, John Simonton, said he could do better.
About 200 people showed up to the Sauk Valley Tea Party-hosted event, which was held at Dixon's Loveland Community House.
The first question of the night was about the jail and the sheriff's deputies' training when it comes to working with inmates with mental health disorders.
Varga said that in recent years, especially with statewide budget cuts and closing of state mental health facilities, the jail is now being forced to house a population it isn't equipped to handle, but that his correctional officers are doing what they can with what they have.
That idea of working with what you have was the theme of the night for Varga, who also often spoke of the uphill climb during his tenure at sheriff, marked by a shrinking budget.
"We try to get the best training that we can to the correctional officers that we have, and that's either by video or through medical service providers," Varga said.
"For the most part, during an arrest, depending on the circumstances, we might not really find out the main issues that they have until they get to the jail, and either they get evaluated by doctors or we have family members come in and tell us."
Varga said inmates with mental health disorders face 6 to 8 months in Lee County before they're able to be transferred to the appropriate facilities.
"Obviously, we understand that jail is not the proper place for them, but in order to keep them safe and the public safe, that's where they are, and we have to deal with it that way," Varga said.
Simonton, a Dixon police officer and retired police commander, brought up a topic he has often noted as being a problem within the sheriff's department – what he sees as an inadequate amount of training provided to sheriff's deputies within all areas.
"Training in general for areas such as mental health has to be done annually, or more often than that," he said. "And speaking of training, training in all areas needs to be improved within the sheriff's department."
Simonton explained that in Dixon, there is a "mobile training unit," which is run by a former Dixon police lieutenant, and that unit provides training for agencies from six different counties. Each year, he said, the counties pay a fee to attend training sessions.
Simonton said that between 2009 and 2012, the Lee County Sheriff's Department trained its employees an average of 250 hours per year. He compared that number to the Sterling Police Department, which had more than 1,100 hours of training; Dixon, which had just under 1,000 hours; Whiteside County, 575 hours; and Ogle County, about 600 hours.
"If we really want to put our efforts forward in training, we have to enhance that and increase that training level," Simonton said. "And that is currently not being done."
Sheriff defends agency's training
Varga responded by saying his deputies are still receiving the benefits of the training sessions.
"Our numbers might be low within the training unit, but that's because we only send one or two officers to that training, and then we bring those officers back and have them come back and pay the training in-house ... so they are getting their training, it's just not sending multiple people to that training unit."
With the loss of revenue from the county's landfill, the sheriff's department's budget is taking a hit; because of that, money was also high on Tuesday night's agenda.
Varga said he wanted to continue his solid relationship with the County Board, and was grateful for the opportunities the members have given him.
"It's one of those things, it's part of my job to explain to them why we need stuff and what we're doing, so we continue to get what we've been given," Varga said, "whether it's a wish list or whether it's simply trying to maintain what we have."
Looking for grants
Simonton said he hoped to look outside of county agencies to find grants to provide for things he sees as important items for the department to have, such as computers for every squad car.
"There are so many people who are competing for the same resources," he said. "There's only so much revenue there, and the best thing to do is to come in and understand where the monies are, how much is there, and put forth your best effort and try to improve technology, and training, and hiring personnel the best you can with what you have, and if you can't do it with the County Board because the monies aren't there, you try to do it ... through grant programs, through attempting to share resources with other agencies."
Varga and Simonton are competing for the Republican nomination for sheriff in the March 18 primary.