Probation officers in the 20th Judicial Circuit Court have declared their intent to strike after they say the St. Clair County Board is not negotiating their contract fairly.
Their main issue, said Paul Sullivan, council president for the Illinois Federation of Public Employees Local 4408, is that the county refuses to tell them how probation funds are being spent. The probation officers have been without a contract since December 2016, and are now at an impasse in negotiations for a new contract. Negotiations began in November.
“Our only option was to strike,” Sullivan said. “We’re absolutely hoping they’ll return to the table with a fair offer and negotiate with us in good faith. It’s all we want.”
The union represents probation officers, supervisors and support staff in St. Clair, Monroe, Perry, Randolph and Washington counties.
Sullivan said the officers are planning on striking if they aren’t able to get a fairly negotiated contract. Once they give the county a five-day notice of the strike, they’re free to strike at any point after that, he said.
The union filed its five-day notice Wednesday with the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which started the five-day clock.
Sullivan added a session with a mediator and Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson is scheduled for Wednesday, June 28.
Sullivan said the earliest the strike could begin is Thursday.
In a statement from the Gleeson, the judge said probation is an essential service to the Judicial Branch and the community.
“The Probation Department is funded primarily by the state, and to the best of the court’s knowledge, the county has not been reimbursed since August of 2016,” Gleeson wrote. “These negotiations are not immune from the state’s financial dysfunction. The court is working diligently to resolve the issues.”
The probation department is already underfunded and understaffed, Sullivan said, which has led to officers supervising caseloads two to three times what the Illinois Supreme Court recommends. In addition, he said the board has been withholding information as to where nearly $700,000 from probation fees has gone. Officers requested information on how the funds were used but have not received an answer.
Probation officers save the state $55 per day for each offender, which adds up to around $18 million per year, Sullivan said.
On top of that, as of the end of May, the state owes the county $5.6 million, of which $1.9 million is from 2010 through 2015, according to county officials.
In 2016, funding for probation services was completely removed from the budget, something Sullivan says is unprecedented.
“The irresponsible and dangerously high caseloads have jeopardized the safety of the staff of the probation department and jeopardized the public safety of the community,” Sullivan said. “Of course, we do not want to strike, but we had to take this crucial step to move the process forward.”
However, county officials said in 2016 they paid for probation officers’ salaries out of a different fund, with money from a special court fee, as a short-term fix for cash-flow purposes.
In 2017, the county returned to paying for probation officer salaries out of its general fund, said Sue Schmidt, a county financial analyst.
This vote to strike comes months after St. Clair County voters rejected a sales tax for public safety that would have added 1 percentage point to the sales tax rate. If the tax was approved, it would have brought in $22 million a year to the county, of which $2 million would have been allocated for the probation department.