Pay increases that will ensure youths at Kane County's juvenile detention center receive the full five hours of classroom instruction required by the state every day drew long-term budget concerns from a handful of county board members Tuesday.
Staffing levels and hours at the detention center often result in the youths receiving only two hours of classroom time. Raises costing about $377,000 will increase work hours and cut down on the staff's 20 percent turnover rate, county officials said. Much of the funding for the raises will come from state funding for the court system. But even with that in mind, the price tag worried some board members committed to maintaining the freeze on the county's property tax levy.
Board member Doug Scheflow was the lone "no" vote on Tuesday's staff raises. He noted some staff will receive a 12 percent pay raise over the next two years.
"It's too much of an increase," Scheflow said. "That's higher than necessary."
The plan follows the model for instituting larger pay increases over multiple years. County board members have approved several requests from department heads in recent months to bring Kane County's salaries more in line with neighboring counties. Kane County state's attorney's office employees are in the middle of a plan to raise the salaries for starting attorneys by $13,000 over several years. Similar deals were put in place for the public defender and information technology department employees. And just this year, County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen shepherded through 5 percent raises and benefit increases for nine department directors. In the background, county officials have renegotiated almost all 11 of the county's union contracts, adding hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs to future county budgets.
"Ultimately, we have some long-term liability," said county board member Jesse Vazquez. "When will we have to start looking at increasing our levies?"
That question is at the forefront of Lauzen's mind. He campaigned on keeping the county's overall property tax levy flat for the entirety of his first term. He renewed that commitment Tuesday in saying "one of the fundamental foundations" of the upcoming 2015 budget will be keeping the levy frozen. It won't be easy, Lauzen said.
"I'm starting to keep a tally of the really big pieces that are going to be really hard to figure out in (next) year's budget," Lauzen said. "There are some whoppers."
Lauzen referenced long-term health care costs for retired county employees as one of those whoppers. The county still has two union contracts to negotiate as well.
"We take each year as it comes at us," Lauzen said. "I don't think all of us have answers yet about how we're going to handle it four to five years out."
A five-year financial plan unveiled in March indicated a budget shortfall as soon as 2017. But the plan also took advantage of a $9.7 million surplus the county had at the end of 2013 to create a "Property Tax Freeze Protection Fund" using $1 million of the surplus. Another $2 million of the surplus would go to an emergency reserve, providing some cushion to fund all the recent pay increases.