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Article updated: 8/28/2013 6:43 PM

Kane erases projected deficit in budget talks

By James Fuller

Kane County Board members erased a projected 2014 budget deficit of nearly $2 million Wednesday but continued to fuel a budget battle between themselves and Coroner Rob Russell.

With all departments and elected officials having submitted their budget requests, the county board faced a nearly $2 million challenge to Chairman Chris Lauzen's pledge to keep the property tax levy flat headed into Wednesday. But the board's finance committee elected to adopt suggestions that primarily involve shuffling debts among funds to erase the deficit.

For example, $462,000 of computer equipment purchases were moved out of the board's general fund and into the county's capital fund. Chief Judge Judy Brawka also agreed to move $350,000 of costs to house juvenile offenders out of the general fund. Those costs will be paid out of probation fees.

The committee also agreed to divert $270,000 of tax dollars earmarked to cover the county during lawsuits into the general fund. The county still has about $5 million in reserves to insure itself against legal liabilities for next year.

But it was the committee's agreement to erase about $58,000 from Russell's budget that may spur the most vitriol. Russell presented a plan last week that asked for either $144,000 to cover an escalation in overtime costs or $80,000 to hire two new deputies to handle after-hours and weekend death responses.

Lauzen said, at the time, he believed that was asking for too much money while the county fought for every penny to keep the property tax levy flat. But on Wednesday, a plan backed by Lauzen gives Russell his two new deputies. However, it strips out all other salary increases for the department to help cover some of the cost. Lauzen said Russell has not agreed to the new budget plan for his office.

"Every (other) department and office is doing it one way," Lauzen said. "This one is different. We have some calculation differences. We have scope of work differences."

Lauzen called on Russell to appear before the finance committee in coming weeks to defend cost increases in his office.

In a pre-emptive strike, Russell issued a statement late Tuesday defending the budget he crafted himself. He said the recent unionization of coroner's office employees and the rise in the number of deaths that require coroner involvement are fueling the need for more money.

"As the office holder, it is my responsibility to forecast and address this issue," Russell said in his statement. "To not do so would be irresponsible of me. I have prepared my budget according to probable outcomes, not worst case scenarios."

One probable outcome not addressed in the overall county budget so far is the outcome of multiple union contract negotiations currently under way. The new budget plan, with no deficit, does not include any pay raises for any union or nonunion employees covered by those contracts. Lauzen said even a 1 percent increase in salaries across the county would add up to $1 million in costs to the county's budget.

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