This article has been updated to include additional information from a speaker at the meeting.
URBANA, Ill. (WCIA)– Champaign County officials said “yes” to the sheriff’s plea for help. Two of Sheriff Dustin Heuerman’s proposals for financial assistance got unanimous approval from the Champaign County Board Committee of the Whole.
Officer vacancies are the highest they’ve ever been at the downtown and satellite Champaign County jails in Urbana. Two weeks ago, Sheriff Heuerman expected to be down 10 corrections officers by the end of July.
Two weeks later, things got worse. Heuerman said they’re down 12 correctional officers Tuesday night. That’s why he came to the committee meeting, and he wasn’t the only one to speak up.
“We need a win,” shared Micah McMahon, a Champaign County Corrections Officer. “Our people need a win.”
McMahon spoke during the public comment period, telling the committee it’s been a rough year at the jails. He was there to ask the board to consider COVID-19 hazard pay for corrections officers, as they “continue to work in dangerous and extremely deteriorated conditions.
That issue has been tabled for the time being.
The committee did unanimously approve a $5,000 sign-on incentive for new hires. Heuerman’s proposal included giving the bonus to any corrections officers already hired in 2021.
The total cost is estimated at $75,000, give or take, over the next three years.
McMahon said the sign-on bonuses may help recruit more officers, but it would not help those who have been working at the jail since before 2021.
“I’ve been here nine years, nothing…Nothing,” board member Stan Harper commented. “If we’re going to kick it down the road, I mean, good luck to you, Dustin, but it’s time for action, folks.”
Harper, from Ogden, was referring to closing the downtown jail. In a July letter to the County Board, Heuerman asked for a commitment to do that.
“But we haven’t done that for the last 10 years since I’ve been here. We haven’t protected the staff,” Brad Passalacqua, a board member from Champaign said.
“Every day I wait for somebody to come in and say, ‘The jail’s closed’. You know, the lawsuits that we get,” Heuerman shared.
He said it has become difficult to maintain minimum safety standards.
“I’ve challenged this county board for three years, to say, ‘What happens if we have to close the jail tomorrow?'” Heuerman added.
While that discussion is ongoing, the sheriff asked for nearly half a million dollars ($494,000) to relocate inmates from the downtown jail to other counties for the remainder of the year. That’s 20 times the Sheriff’s Office’s current fiscal year budget for boarding prisoners outside of the jail.
That was also a unanimous “yes” Tuesday night.
“My goal with relocating 70 inmates out of the county would be to close the downtown jail. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that that’s 100% possible right now because of classification issues,” Heuerman explained.
The move would also reduce the officer to inmate ratio. This came at a time when the sheriff also worries about the spread of the coronavirus and injuries.
“A major incident is waiting to happen there,” he elaborated. “We’ve had several correctional officers, at least a couple, who have been battered over the last year.”
Several board members spoke in support. Stan Harper even suggested the county dedicate $10 million in American Rescue Plan dollars to consolidating the jails right away.
This is just the first step in the approval process for both proposals. The Champaign County Board will take the final vote next week.