Kane County’s plan for health department revamp faces scrutiny over taxpayer risk

Despite lingering concerns that Kane County taxpayers might be on the hook for the $39 million, county board members pushed ahead with a funding plan for a “Mayo Clinic” makeover of the county health department.

The new facility, slated for unincorporated St. Charles, is on the fast track. County officials face a 2026 deadline to spend all remaining federal COVID-19 relief funds. Board members who support the project want to use $18 million of American Recovery Plan Act money to help pay for it. The funds must address issues the pandemic caused or worsened.

Legal murkiness surrounds what exactly meets that definition. Both the county’s outsourced consultant and the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office have told board members there is at least a chance the federal government could say building a new health department with COVID money isn’t allowed. And that decision may only come after the building is open for business, meaning taxpayers would have to come up with the cash to repay the federal government.

“I’m not saying this can be done; I’m not saying it can’t be done,” said Kane County Assistant State’s Attorney John Frank to the board’s executive committee this week. “It’s not clearly defined what you can do. Is this something the county can afford if we are wrong?”

For some board members, the answer is “no.”

“The reality is we just deficit spend on a budget without knowing where next year’s budget money is coming from,” said county board member Cliff Surges. “That makes me incredibly nervous to say, ‘Yes, I want to greenlight this.’ Every fiber of my body is saying pump the brakes on this.”

But Surges was one of only two “no” votes on the spending plan, which still needs a vote by the full board before county staff seek quotes and architectural plans for the project.

The 13 “yes” votes cast virtually ensure the plan’s ultimate approval. Only 14 votes are needed, meaning only one of the 11 board members not on the executive committee or board Chair Corinne Pierog would need to vote “yes.” Pierog has already signaled her support.

Even Aurora-based board members, some of whom may prefer keeping the county health department in their city, support the dream of a better-staffed health department that can offer more direct services to county residents, like mental health care.

“This is a perfect use of these funds,” said county board member Mavis Bates. “The American Rescue Plan is here to rescue. There’s countless people out in Kane County who still need help recovering from COVID. We can’t have a health department that isn’t healthy. The risk is we may have to pay for it in the future. That risk is very small, but we have to do it anyway.”

The all-in vision calls for a 48,500-square-foot health department. That’s more than twice the size of the existing facility.

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