DuPage County District 6 hopefuls divided on youth home closure
The six candidates running for three District 6 seats on the DuPage County Board agree the county should strive to offer quality services for less money.
But they're divided on whether measures like the decision to close the county youth home are the right way to do it.
Late last year, the DuPage County Board voted to close the home, sending youth detainees to Kane County's regional facility in St. Charles.
Keeping the youth home open would have cost DuPage about $3.2 million annually. But in July, DuPage Chief Judge John Elsner said he was requesting a $1.3 million budget for the next fiscal year to pay for housing youth offenders — a savings of $1.9 million this year alone.
Meanwhile, the board also voted on a plan to lease part of the former youth building to St. Joseph Academy, a school that helps young people with severe behavioral, emotional and learning disorders. Joseph Academy would pay DuPage roughly $560,000 over the next four years to rent about 14,000 square feet at the facility.
Republican incumbent Robert Larsen said he "led the fight" for the measure because it was a question of efficiency.
"I think it was a home run," Larsen said. "We have to ask the question when it comes to consolidation: what is being provided and can (services) be provided more efficiently? There is no one in this county who will tell you they are undertaxed."
Republican newcomer Kevin Wiley agrees closing the home seems like a good move and warns other difficult decisions may lie ahead in eliminating redundancy.
"There is no indication there is a letdown of services (since the closure)," Wiley said. "Perhaps we can revisit this issue if the demand for those services change."
He said intergovernmental agreements that reduce service overlap, such as coordinating road maintenance with townships, are the starting point for savings.
"A lot of talk has been given to individual salaries, but that's shaving off the edges," Wiley said. "We need a complete analysis of how we do our business."
Before the county board took a final vote to close the youth home in November, a group of residents and law enforcement officials fought to keep it open.
Some county board members, like incumbent candidates Dirk Enger, a Democrat, and James Zay, a Republican, even supported a budget amendment that would have given the facility extra funding. Ultimately, the measure was defeated by a 10-8 vote.
Enger said he still opposes the decision, saying it was not a good example of saving money while still providing good service.
"To take care of our own youth and have oversight, it doesn't come down to just a dollar amount," Enger said. "There is a domino effect; we don't know what the out-of-pocket cost is to municipalities.
"When a police officer has to transport a youth to Kane County, how long is that police officer gone? I thought that was endangering public safety. I feel there were never adequate figures produced versus dollar amounts lost in the community," he said.
Democratic hopefuls Lauren Nowak and Dave Barry both said they question the decision, too, but think there's room for consolidation in other areas.
"The youth home is definitely a very complicated issue, and I was concerned with public outcry against doing it," Nowak said. "The county board members do need to listen to what the public is saying."
Barry said only time will tell if closing the home was beneficial, but he worries the board didn't listen to residents.
"I'm not necessarily against consolidation, it depends on the facts," he said. "(But) it made a lot of sense to not consolidate. Time will tell, but you have a lot of families, school districts and teachers impacted by this decision. You think about those people first."
Zay worked with Enger and their allies on the board to oppose the closing, but Zay conceded the arrangement with Kane County and the new Joseph Academy seems to be working. Still, he said, his main concern was DuPage residents.
"It wasn't about the jobs and the money, it was about the kids. They are the most at-risk," Zay said. "We had a lot of families telling us 'I can get a bus to Wheaton, I can't get a bus to Kane County. My son is going to think I don't love him because I don't have a car (to visit).'"
Zay said other areas for future consolidation should include working with townships and municipalities to get lower rates on services like flood cleanup and mosquito abatement.
The District 6 term will be for either two or four years.
With the exception of the chairman's post, all seats on the county board are up for election. That's because once every 10 years, the county redraws district boundaries based on the latest U.S. Census results. Next, the county will hold a lottery to determine which three seats will start with 4-year terms, and which will have 2-year terms.
District 6 includes all or parts of Warrenville, Batavia, West Chicago, Wheaton, Winfield, Carol Stream, Bloomingdale, Hanover Park, Bartlett, Wayne and St. Charles.
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