URBANA - Champaign County Board members put off a decision Thursday about whether to spend $65,000 to continue having an accelerated dispositions assistant state's attorney, whose main job is to move cases to keep the county jails from becoming overcrowded.
In a 14-9 vote, with Republicans comprising all the "no" votes, the board deferred the issue to the Feb. 20 board meeting to give a new subcommittee time to study whether the position can be funded out of public safety quarter-cent sales tax money in the coming budget year.
A federal grant has paid for the assistant state's attorney and a legal secretary since 1999, but funding for the program ends Feb. 28. The county board decided against including the position in the fiscal 2003 budget this fall, but the issue has arisen again with the backing of co-administrators Denny Inman and Debra Busey and Sheriff Dan Walsh.
The two county jails have a capacity of 279 inmates, but jail population averaged 323 inmates during the calendar 2002 year, with overflow prisoners often kept in crowded holding cells.
Assistant State's Attorney Steve Ziegler told board members that the accelerated dispositions program saved the county $258,000 by reducing the number of inmate days during 2002 by 5,123 days. It costs the county an average of $50.42 per day per inmate.
For the remainder of this fiscal year, paying for an assistant state's attorney and legal secretary would cost $65,000. The full-year cost would be $87,000.
Capt. Jim Young, who heads the corrections department for the sheriff's office, said the accelerated dispositions attorney gives him and his staff someone they can contact directly, particularly in cases where an inmate might be facing expensive medical care. Oftentimes in such an instance, a case can be resolved quickly and the county can avoid picking up a medical bill that could cost thousands of dollars, he said.
"Prior to 1999, we had to make a call to the state's attorney, and hope somebody would return the call," said Young. "From my experience, the sheriff usually had to make the call ... From my experience, this program has allowed my staff access to the state's attorney."
Republicans urged board Democrats to fund the position, even though the county budget has a surplus of only $8,000 and last year the general corporate fund deficit exceeded $1 million.
Deborah Frank Feinen, R-Champaign, noted that board Republicans suggested cuts in the budget this fall that could be made to pay for the program, but that Democrats rejected them.
"The reality is this is something we should have budgeted for," she said. "It should be a general corporate fund item, it should be funded and it should have been included in the budget in the beginning, as Republicans tried to do."
In response to a question, Ziegler said the state's attorney's office currently has two vacant attorney positions that are budgeted for. Those include a senior assistant state's attorney position that became vacant in January when Chapin Rose left to serve in the Illinois House and an assistant traffic attorney that the state's attorney's office is currently trying to fill.
Ziegler said there is actually a third vacancy for a lead prosecutor, but that the position has not been budgeted for as part of the budget cuts implemented last fall.
Also Thursday, the county board approved a resolution authorizing the issuance of $20 million in general obligation bonds for construction of a new county nursing home.
The county received an AA rating from Moody's, board members were told, which is the second highest rating. The bonds are expected to go on sale Monday.