Metro-East News

Madison County’s new budget would lower your property taxes — and keep you safer

The Madison County Courthouse
The Madison County Courthouse

The final draft of the Madison County budget makes room for several new hires in public safety, but also includes cuts to the county clerk, recorder and mental health departments.

The Finance and Government Operations Committee passed the budget Oct. 30. It now heads to a vote of the full County Board on Wednesday. In addition, the committee passed a smaller property tax levy by $1.8 million compared with the previous year for a total levy of $30.7 million.

According to a news release from County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, there will be an extra sheriff’s deputy, four jailers, one public defender, a deputy coroner, a probation officer in pre-trial release and one full-time and one part-time assistant state’s attorneys with the aid of a grant.

“I’m very happy I’m getting another person,” said public defender John Rekowski, who said he would hire someone a few years out of law school to fill the position if it’s approved by the full board.

Rekowski previously noted that an increase of felonies, coupled with the demands of several new specialty courts, was taking a toll on his office. With more felonies, people stay in jail longer, which has stressed the facility and led to lawsuits against the county for poor conditions.

The new hire would focus on lesser felony charges, which would free up more experienced staff to work on more serious cases, Rekowski said.

“We achieved both our goals,” Prenzler said in the news release. “More resources for public safety and lower property taxes.”

The budget process has been long and contentious at times, spanning more than 30 hours across several tense meetings.

“I thought it was a unified effort, a collaborative effort,” said Auditor Rick Faccin. “Everybody gave a little.”

Among those who saw reductions was the county clerk’s office, whose early voting budget went through wide fluctuations.

As recently as Oct. 24, Madison County faced a reduction to just four early voting locations, the legal minimum, from 11, the current total. In addition, some members of the Finance Committee pursued dropping the number of election judges at each site, which would give more work to each judge.

“We’re adding to the stresses of three people where the statute clearly says it requires five,” said County Clerk Debra Ming-Mendoza, who also called the cuts “arbitrary” at the meeting. One judge would have to be devoted to same-day registration, and the other two would be devoted to checking documents and administering ballots.

Although state law allows counties to employ only three judges instead of the usual five, the law’s intent was to give rural areas that have trouble recruiting judges more flexibility, Ming-Mendoza said. She also worried that reducing the number of judges could put voting at risk altogether because if one judge doesn’t show up, then the polling place can’t open, although there are alternate judges on call.

“I’m not saying ‘cut all the polling places,’” said Finance Chairwoman Lisa Ciampoli at the meeting. “Anytime I can save the taxpayers money, that’s important because they’re the ones that are footing the bill for every one of us.”

We achieved both our goals. More resources for public safety and lower property taxes.

Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler

The final draft of the budget allots for early voting a total of three judges per site during the primary and four judges per site during the general election. There will be 10 early voting sites, seven of which will be staffed by the county, and three of which are planned to be staffed by township officials, Ming-Mendoza said.

The city of Madison has been proposed as the one site that will lose early voting because it was used the least out of the 11 and because the next closest one, in Granite City, is three miles away.

Still, Madison Mayor John Hamm III was upset that Madison residents could lose the spot. He volunteered Madison’s City Hall has a location for early voting, but he didn’t know how it could be paid for. He said he planned to attend the Madison County Board meeting Tuesday to hear more details.

Ed Yohnka, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said Madison County was the first place he’s heard of reducing early voting in the state.

“Generally speaking, we have seen over the last several years … that we don’t really have a voter fraud problem,” he said. “What we have is a voter participation problem.” Solving that requires increasing voting access, he said, but eliminating it “does a disservice to elections.”

The recorder’s office also faces cuts in the final draft budget.

Processing documents quickly is important for institutions relying on the office because they can be penalized for filing paperwork late, recorder Amy Meyer said.

Her office, which operates on the fees it collects, is set to be reduced by more than $130,000 in pay and about $15,000 in software and data processing purchases.

“By slashing our budget, what the County Board is effectively doing is imposing a tax upon the banks, the title companies (and) everybody that uses our services because we are no longer going to be able to provide the same level of service,” Meyer said, adding that she will seek more funds to keep the same level of service.

The Mental Health Board will also be giving less money to service providers if the budget passes. The total budget for aid was $2.37 million in the last fiscal year; it is set to decline by about $100,000.

In addition, a proposed $500,000 allotment to treat opioid addiction in the county was removed.

Neither the affected providers nor Mental Health Department Director Jennifer Roth could be reached for comment.

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel