Kane Co. proposes $39M public health overhaul with remaining COVID cash

Kane County’s unspent federal COVID-19 relief funds soon might transform into a new county health facility geared toward being prepared for the next pandemic, as well as restoring staffing levels that haven’t been seen in more than a decade.

Federal debt-limit negotiations threaten a clawback of unspent American Rescue Plan money, with a 2026 deadline to spend the funds looming.

Kane County officials will fast track a vote on using $18 million in COVID cash on a $39 million new building for the county health department. The plan also would relocate the facility out of Aurora, in the southern part of the county, to a more central location at the county’s judicial center campus in unincorporated St. Charles.

If approved, the plan would culminate in a ribbon cutting in about 18 months and full use of the building about a year after that. The county has enough savings outside of the COVID dollars to put about $31 million into the project. If additional money can’t be found, perhaps in opioid settlement funds, officials would downsize the project to fit the money they do have.

The all-in vision calls for a 48,500-square-foot building. That’s more than twice the size of the 18,500-square-foot existing facility at 1240 Highland Ave. in Aurora. The county bought that old Mercy Hospital office building for $2 million in 2003 and pumped another $200,000 into renovations. By 2010, the health department grew to 122 employees only to see staffing halved under a Republican-controlled county board that viewed the department as bloated.

The pandemic and subsequent spike in the need for more mental health services is reigniting debate on the role of the county health department. Democrats have long wanted to restore services to pre-2010 levels, and now they have a controlling majority on the county board.

Michael Isaacson, Kane County’s executive director of public health, told county board members the community needs a hub for immunizations, health education and social programs like teen pregnancy assistance.

“We are, by far, the lowest funded health department in the Chicago region,” Isaacson said. “We are not even close. We are dramatically underfunding public health.”

It’s unclear if the plan has enough support on the board to move forward. Both Democrats and Republicans have reservations.

Democrat Michelle Gumz said she’s uncomfortable with the expedited timeline and the possibility of the U.S. Treasury Department ruling the project ineligible for COVID money only after the building is finished. There also are a litany of outstanding county department and community requests for the remaining relief money.

“Should we be using ARPA money to build a building that we may not end up keeping in 20 years?” Gumz asked. “Or do we use it for the projects that have been brought to us?”

Republican Gary Daugherty said he isn’t convinced the county has the long-term money to dramatically expand health department staff and programming.

“We just approved a budget that was millions of dollars short,” Daugherty said. “We don’t have the money to staff it. You guys want to buy a Ferrari, and you can’t put gas in it.”

County staff said officials must have all the COVID relief money spent by the end of 2026. That puts the project on a timeline that would push for final board approval as soon as next month.

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