URBANA – This is all new to Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh. In four previous elections – primaries and general elections – he never had an opponent. Now he does: write-in candidate Jerommie Smith.
"It's a distraction. I'd much rather spend my time and energy running this place, working on (requests for proposals) and everything else I have to do," said the 59-year-old Republican. "But I suppose for anyone else in politics, this is also a distraction. You think about it when you shouldn't. You get home from work, and you should relax and not think about this kind of stuff."
So now he finds himself speaking to groups, distributing yard signs (about 900 so far) and debating the wisdom of spending money on TV and radio advertising, something he's never had to do before.
His message is simple: "I try to educate people on what the sheriff's office is because a lot of people think we're just a police department. I talk about all the ways we try to save the county money, how we've increased training, how I think we have a pretty good department."
In the last two years, Walsh said, he's cut the size of his staff, deferred the purchase of squad cars and even returned a pay raise he was owed.
In fiscal year 2006, according to county budget figures, the sheriff's office budget was $9.6 million. In fiscal year 2008 it was $10.3 million. In the current fiscal year, which ends Dec. 1, it is $9.8 million.
The proposed budget for next year is just over $10 million.
Total staffing in the office, including the corrections (jail) department and the law enforcement department, has dropped from 159 in fiscal year 2006 to 155.5 this year. Next year's budget calls for further cuts – to 152.5.
"We will have to disband our street crimes unit – it's now down to two guys – they're going back on patrol to answer calls," Walsh said, adding that he hopes to reinstate it when times get better.
So far, he said, the budget cuts haven't had negative consequences on law enforcement.
"I don't think anything really bad has happened," he said. "We can respond. But I just wrote a letter to the (county) board that I have money to hire, but they want me to wait a while. I don't think they realize that with these guys it's not like hiring a clerk typist. A road deputy has to have 12 weeks of training, minimum (Police Training Institute), four months on the road. And I want to have enough people out there so that they can protect the citizens but also protect themselves. I don't want to send one guy into a violent domestic unless that's the only choice."
Other cuts are less visible, he said.
"In 2003, my first year in office, we got the county board to pass an ordinance that allowed us to pay a prisoner's medical bills at the public aid rate instead of at the full rate we had been paying," he said. "What that means is that if we go in for a $600 service for an inmate, by the time it gets coded at the public aid rate, it's probably going to cost the county only about $100.
"We looked at that again this year and discovered we've saved $42,000, just between December and July. I would assume that that's hundreds of thousands of dollars saved over the years."
The county also has saved money by expanding its electronic home detention program for convicted nonviolent offenders, Walsh said. That reduces the number of jail inmates.
"In the old system (former Sheriff) Dave Madigan would have three or four on," he said. "Now we've got up to 50. It's real time GPS. The computer keeps track of where they are and sends us a warning if they violate a time or space restriction. The other thing we've done is actually have road deputies do EHD checks. They're out there literally knocking on doors to be sure the guy is where he's supposed to be, smelling their breath, making sure they're not drinking or that there's drugs."
Early in his tenure as sheriff the county jail had a spate of suicides – three within a six-month period. But since 2004 there has been only one.
"Some would say I'm a bleeding heart liberal," Walsh said, "but I'm proud that we changed the way we provide medical and mental health because we had that problem years ago.
"We decided that we would go out and get a vendor that was focused on prison populations because these people have all the problems we do out here, but then they've got more problems (in jail). So now the medical and mental health units are combined and these are people (Health Professionals Ltd. of Peoria) that specialize in this."
Walsh has mixed feelings on the need to consolidate the two jails: a satellite facility in east Urbana and the old correctional center in downtown Urbana.
"Personally I like being here across from the courthouse because I'm over there constantly," he said. "But except for that personal advantage, yes, we would be better off to close this facility and probably consolidate everything out there. Manpower is where we'd be better off. We have a master controller sitting here (in the downtown jail). We have a master controller sitting there. How efficient is that? But I truly don't think the county is going to have the money to do this for a while."
Walsh said that he sometimes goes out on calls, makes traffic stops and helps with courthouse security but that his job is primarily administrative. "Until you actually get in here, I don't think people realize what this job is about," he said. "I'm not out catching bad guys. That's not my function. Part of my function is to run a real complex organization that has a hospital, a hotel and a mental health institution, all in one."
The sheriff had nothing bad to say about his opponent, who he not only worked with but had represented in 2000 when he was an active attorney.
"I think Jerommie's an honest kid. I frankly like Jerommie," he said. "I don't wish him bad. I hope he's successful in everything he does except run for sheriff."
Occupation: Sheriff; part-time instructor at UI Police Training Institute