Board takes aim at public safety positions


MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA) — Public safety departments in Piatt County took two new hits Tuesday morning after board members approved a revised budget that takes financial aim at the county’s Emergency Management Agency and State’s Attorney office.

Included in county board chair Ray Spencer’s budget-cutting proposals Tuesday was eliminating the county’s full-time drug prosecutor, slashing the salary of assistant state’s attorney Elizabeth Dobson and reducing the county’s Emergency Management Agency to a part-time operations budget.

The new cuts come after a month of county board finance meetings, in which members debated how they’d handle a budget initially projected to be around $700,000 in the negative.

Last week, after tasking county department heads with making nine percent cuts to their individual budgets, board members said those cuts didn’t do enough to reduce the overall deficit, so they tasked Spencer with finding more.

The cuts announced Tuesday morning — and approved 5-1 by the board — don’t solve the problem: Piatt County will still be more than $350,000 in-the-red when members take a final budget vote on November 13.

If those cuts are adopted by the board, the Piatt County state’s attorney office will have to begin to re-prioritize its caseload in the wake of reduced staff, on top of the salary donations and cuts already made by the office to help with the budget.

And, should the cuts be adopted by the board, efforts to bring the county’s Emergency Management Agency into compliance with state standards would be set back — which, in turn, could put the entire county in legal jeopardy.

Even if the budget was balanced, it’s unlikely that Piatt County could afford the financial consequences of a disaster or emergency all on its own.

That’s why it’s important for the county to remain accredited — or eligible for state and federal grant reimbursements in such a situation.

To maintain accreditation, a county’s Emergency Management Agency or Emergency Services and Disaster Agency has to be a functioning department with an emergency plan that receives the state’s stamp of approval.

In 2018, Piatt County almost lost its accredited status.

After then-EMA director Jim Donaldson submitted the county’s Emergency Operations Plan to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the state rejected it, citing errors.

Donaldson resigned that May in the wake of charges of theft and official misconduct; county officials then hired Mike Holmes as an independent contractor to revise the plan two days before a state deadline.

And while the state accepted the revisions and allowed Piatt County to remain eligible for state and federal grant money, county officials agreed the EMA was badly in need of updating — the EOP still needed corrections, and at the time, the 2004-era EMA truck couldn’t be driven without being jump-started, among other issues.

Holmes was hired-on as the county’s first full-time EMA director in order to “modernize” the department and bring it wholly into compliance with state standards.

And while a number of projects have already been completed, there’s still more work left in order to align the county with state standards.

For one thing, Piatt County doesn’t have a system that can send out mass notifications in an emergency. That was included in the full-time budget proposal, but jeopardized by the switch to a half-time operations budget.

Still, faced with budget complications, county board members in previous meetings have toyed with the idea of eliminating the department altogether to save money.

That option isn’t actually legal, Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Rebecca Clark said.

“All disasters and emergencies start and end locally,” Clark said in a statement. “With that philosophy in mind, state law dictates that each county must have an Emergency Management Agency or Emergency Services and Disaster Agency to be responsible for local emergency management programs.”

Even if the department were eliminated, the proposed savings wouldn’t come close to zeroing out the county’s deficit: after grant reimbursements are factored in, the current EMA budget — not counting Tuesday’s cuts — is $85,743.

Regardless, board meetings centered on budget talks have included a significant amount of time dedicated to debating whether the EMA should remain full-time, what the EMA director salary should be and whether it’s fair for the department to appear to have a budget increase on paper, regardless of whether grants will cover up to 65 percent of operating costs.

In fact, board chair Ray Spencer appeared to support the EMA’s direction toward modernization, including its status as a full-time operation: in July, Spencer penned a guest column in the Piatt County Journal-Republican saying “definite progress is being made toward our EMA becoming a state-of-the-art entity.”

And according to a memo sent by state’s attorney Dana Rhoades to county board members on Monday and obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by WCIA, Spencer said he was “upset” by the way the EMA director was treated by other county officials — including during recent budget talks.

“As recently as September 23, 2019, you stated that Mike ‘was in a very down mood” that “he’s been mistreated” that ‘if his budget is cut, then he has a legitimate complaint,’’” the memo stated. “You also asked whether you should meet with Jennifer (Harper), Debbie (Marshall), Dale (Lattz) and Renee (Fruendt) to tell them to stop treating him like a ‘2nd class employee.’ You also requested that we provide EMA education to the rest of the county board, hence all of the emails. “

But as of last week, the memo goes on to state that Rhoades noticed an abrupt “180 degree turnaround” regarding the EMA after Spencer left a meeting that was supposed to be about the EMA budget before it even began.

Spencer repeatedly declined interviews, phone calls and opportunities to provide a statement to WCIA.

In addition to cutting the operations budget from a full-time one to a part-time one on Tuesday, board members also approved shaving off $2,000 of the EMA director salary of $37,000.

That salary — for a position that’s on-call 24/7 — is one of the lowest among Piatt County department heads, with the next lowest being around $40,000.

Other department heads make salaries ranging from $50-$70,000 per year on average.

Again, Spencer declined to explain the reason for the cut.

When asked by WCIA whether or not the county’s EMA could function if it were not funded full-time — state’s attorney Dana Rhoades’ answer was simple: “It can’t.”

“At this point, literally, the fate of the EMA and the consequences are all on you,” Rhoades’ memo to the board read.

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