A budget battle in Kane County with political undertones will pit Coroner Rob Russell against county board Chairman Chris Lauzen after the two clashed Friday over the financial future of Russell's office.
Russell is asking for a budget increase of $80,000 to $144,000 to address after-hours death investigations. Now, coroner's deputies work on-call after 4:30 p.m. during the week and on the weekends. They are paid a $90 stipend whether they get called out or not, plus an additional hourly wage if they have to go to a death scene.
Russell indicated that practice may not be legal, and the deputies must be paid an hourly wage whether they are called out or not. At current staffing levels, that means overtime pay that may reach as much as $144,000.
Another option would be to hire two new deputies. That would cost the county an additional $80,000, not including benefits. Russell currently has four deputies in his office.
Lauzen told Russell Friday the costs are too much for the budget to absorb.
"What we're talking about here is a 33 percent increase in your payroll line, basically," Lauzen said. "And, for the entire coroner's office (budget), a 25 percent increase."
The county board is in the middle of setting the budget for 2014, and the goal is to not increase the property tax levy on residents. That won't be easy. Submitted department budgets already show a $2 million increase in costs, not including any impact from several union contract negotiations already under way.
Given the impasse, Lauzen has suggested a third party, perhaps County Auditor Terry Hunt, should take a look at Russell's books to find efficiencies that might offset Russell's budget increase request.
But Russell said he's not interested in that.
"We are here to justify our budget, not our existence," Russell said.
After the meeting, Russell said what Lauzen really wants his office to do is investigate fewer deaths.
"By statute, we have to go," Russell said. "When somebody calls us and says there's a dead body, we go. Period. What if it winds up being somebody with an ice pick in their head? And, yes, that has happened. So the argument that he wants to get some consultant in to discuss all that, it's not going to happen. We know when we're supposed to go out. We don't need somebody else telling us that."
Russell said Lauzen is going after his budget out of a political vendetta. Questions arose during Russell's campaign last fall about Lauzen's support when a consultant Lauzen used during his own campaign publicly backed Russell's Democratic opponent.
Lauzen said on Election Night that he supported Russell all along. He reiterated that support Friday.
"We're from the same party," Lauzen said. "We're bros."
Lauzen said his concern is about the potential for Russell's budget to get out of hand if there is a directive to perform an autopsy on every dead body in the county.
"All I want to do is pay for necessary work that is done," Lauzen said. "It's not about you. It's not about me. It's about a (large) increase in his payroll."