Kane County creates automatic punishment for officials who blow budgets

 
 
Updated 9/6/2017 7:47 PM

Kane County Board members drew a budgetary line in the sand Wednesday by adopting a new financial policy: Spend more money than you're given, and the board will strip that amount from your subsequent budget.

A preliminary vote Wednesday showed ample support. The final vote may not go as smoothly.

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County board Chairman Chris Lauzen last month began promoting the idea of automatic consequences for department heads dipping into the red. The belt-tightening push comes as the county faces a $5.2 million budget deficit for 2018.

There are only about three weeks left to fill the gap before the county must put its official budget plan on display for public review.

Board member Bill Lenert said the policy should move forward even if it rubs some officials the wrong way.

"If your spending is over for the year, there has to be some accountability for that," Lenert said. "We have to be responsible. In business, this is how we've done it. It makes people cognizant that they have to stay within budget. It's a hard-line approach, but it's a practical approach."

Whether it's a legal approach remains to be seen. Several costs in the county fluctuate, including criminal trial expenses, autopsies and the jail population. Not paying mandated costs like those if they run over budget may pose a problem.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

To compensate, Lauzen and the county board's budget committee is also pushing for more say or increased buy-in by other elected officials, on the controllable costs. Those include hiring employees, travel expenses and credit card use.

Fueling the budget scrutiny is a drop in revenue. Some of that stems from a slow economy. Other losses relate to legislative changes. A decrease in money the county collects when someone posts bail in a criminal case will cost the county $400,000 a year.

Finance committee Chairman John Hoscheit said all elected officials must get on board with cutting costs so big money losses aren't absorbed in one department's budget.

"If we're fighting against each other internally, I don't think anyone wins," Hoscheit said. "If they are protecting their individual budgets, then they are not working on creating efficiencies. We can't have one individual say, 'I'm not asking for a budget increase so I'm immune.' Everyone's got to feel like they are impacted by this. If not, then there's going to be animosity."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The fuse to create such a divide is already lit. Lauzen has announced intentions to get leaders in other counties on board with a deeper legal examination of what's known as the internal control statute.

That state law gives county boards power to set budgets for other elected county offices but not over how the money gets spent. That's where a lot of budgets fall apart.

Lauzen wants an outside legal review of the state law. The full county board has yet to rally behind Lauzen's push.

Without more power, Lauzen and the board may make spending plans other county elected officials can ignore. That includes another new financial policy adopted Wednesday that asks all county officials to support a hiring freeze. But county board member Phil Lewis decried hypocrisy in that request.

The county board has approved new hires to fill vacancies just about every month since it last affirmed a hiring freeze. It's set to fill two more vacant positions in a department it controls next week. Lewis believes the county's payroll is bloated by about 100 employees.

"I frequently advocate personnel management issues, primarily by absorbing our attrition and managing expenses in terms of wage and salary increases," Lewis said, pointing to the ongoing hiring. "This board has chosen not to do that. If we want to have tools to address budget deficits, that is the tool."

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