Since Lee County Sheriff John Varga came into office, his budget has pretty much remained the same, always hovering around $3 million a year. Currently, he’s allotted $3.1 million, which is intended to fund everything from his officers’ paychecks to automobile repair to medical expenses for inmates to postage stamps.
His ability to stay inside that budget, while still providing comprehensive public safety for Lee County, is one of the reasons that so many Lee County Board members have publicly backed him.
Just in the past 2 weeks, numerous members have written letters to the editor in support of Varga, largely based on his handling of the budget.
While challenger John Simonton’s ability to handle a budget might be new to the Lee County Board, it’s not a task he’s unfamiliar with.
During his time with the Illinois State Police, he, too, had to work within a budget. When that budget didn’t cover everything he wanted to accomplish, Simonton – who rose to the rank of commander – sought outside sources to get him there.
In a letter printed Friday in this newspaper, Greg Witzleb, a member of the Lee County Board and vice chair of its public safety committee, which oversees Varga’s budget, wrote that “Varga lives within his budget; he is a good steward of the county’s money. There are times that he has been over budget, but because of circumstances he has no control over, i.e., medical expenses for prisoners, gasoline, food and wages, etc.”
Two other Lee County Board members reached for interviews attest to the same thing.
One of them, John Nicholson, vice chair of the Lee County Board, has been an outspoken Varga supporter since the start of his campaign. Both he and his wife, Diane, who is a member of the sheriff’s Merit Commission, have written letters asking for the public’s support.
“He has been within his budget except for union raises the entire time he’s been sheriff,” Nicholson said. “It’s actually almost exceptional. I mean, when I say that, I’m a Varga backer – I make no bones about it, but ... you could compare our budget with probably about anybody else’s, and you could see that John has operated well within his budget aside from the raises, and hasn’t come in asking or more.”
The last time Nicholson can remember Varga asking for more, in fact, was to fund the cost of a new radio system.
Arlan McClain has been the Lee County Board finance chairman for almost a year.
“The budget is getting tighter,” McClain said. “ ... we still have a balanced budget, but to meet our commitments going forward in the long term is really a question. ... Varga fights hard for things that he believes in, but he has run a fairly efficient budget. ... He’s cooperated, been open during discussions. I think he’s done a good job on what he can do to control his budget and still provide quality sheriff services for the citizens of Lee County.”
With the loss of revenue from the landfill, and the county looking at what is likely to be a shrinking budget, McClain said he’d rather have someone in office he knows he can rely on.
“I’ve never worked with his challenger, so I don’t know what he’d be like,” McClain said. “I just know that Varga has done a good job in the time that I’ve worked with him.”
Simonton said people should not assume that state agencies have an easier time with budgets than local police departments.
“I think some people have a perception that working with the state police you have a larger budget to work with, which is not true,” Simonton said. “As a matter of fact, over the years, the state’s budget has decreased like everyone else’s has. So, you have to work within that budget and look for resources outside it to make your operation work. In other words, you have to do more with less at times.”
Simonton has talked at length about his intention to search for available grants to fund projects he sees as being vital to the function of a modern law enforcement agency, such as mobile data computers in all Lee County squad cars – something other area agencies already have, including Sterling Police, Dixon Police, and Whiteside County.
One such grant enabled the formation of the state police’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Team. That grant funded all the equipment needed to conduct operations. Another tactic Simonton has used to find outside funds is looking to private and public-sector agencies.
Simonton talked about a time when Archer Daniels Midland helped to fund the purchase of boats for waterborne rescues and operations on Illinois’ rivers to “improve the economy, or at least keep the economy safe, through the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.”
“There’s ways for us to do that with locally,” he said.