PAXTON — A Ford County Board member’s suggestions for reducing expenses and raising revenue for the county jail led to a contentious debate Thursday, during which the sheriff said he felt like he was being “attacked.”
During a discussion about the county’s proposed deficit budget for the upcoming fiscal year, board member Tom McQuinn of rural Paxton pointed out that the sheriff’s office is spending $54,000 a year to provide inmates with health care and mental health services under an annual contract with Advanced Correctional Healthcare.
Sheriff Mark Doran said the contract “has saved the county hundreds of thousands of dollars,” noting that it alleviates the local health department from having to provide inmates’ physicals and blood work, among other duties, and also reduces inmates’ ambulance rides to hospitals for various tests and evaluations.
McQuinn, though, said the cost of the contract appears to be much higher than the sheriff’s office had been spending to provide inmate medical services in the past. McQuinn said it was his understanding, at the time the board approved the contract, that the board would re-evaluate it at some point, but that never happened.
With Ford County being “one of the highest taxing counties in Illinois” — and with increased property taxes likely on the horizon in upcoming years to fund various facility upgrades and repairs — McQuinn suggested the board explore alternative solutions to providing inmate health care services as a way to cut some costs at the jail.
McQuinn also suggested the board look at ways to bring in some revenue for the jail, including the possibility of billing inmates for medical services provided, or even their meals. McQuinn said that State’s Attorney Andrew Killian pointed out recently that, by law, the county has authority to do so.
“They are responsible to pay for their own medical (services) eventually,” McQuinn told the sheriff, who appeared skeptical of such a measure’s potential success.
“How are you going to charge them and ever get paid (back) by them?” Doran asked McQuinn. “They’re indigent now.”
“Just like restitution (in a court case),” McQuinn responded. “They end up paying that eventually.”
“Which eventually costs us a whole lot of money,” Doran replied.
“How’s that?” McQuinn asked.
“Because we never get paid anything,” Doran said, “because these people don’t have no money.”
“Well, I disagree with that,” McQuinn said, “because (Circuit Clerk) Kim (Evans) keeps giving (the board) figures of the money she collects every month.”
“So you propose that I stop the health plan?” Doran asked.
“I strongly suggest that we look at the health plan, and let’s see if we are spending more than we need to,” McQuinn said.
Board member Cindy Ihrke of rural Roberts then chimed in: “Or is there another company out there that would be a little bit more cost-effective? Maybe this company (Advanced Correctional Healthcare) is cost-effective. I don’t know.”
“It is very cost-effective, and that is under the sheriff’s domain to run his office as he sees fit,” Doran responded. “Any bills I submit, the county board has to pay (them) by law. That is my domain to run my sheriff’s office. If you do not fund it, then I don’t spend it — yes, that’s true — but if you feel that strongly about it, Tom, then vote ‘no.’ ...”
“I don’t think anybody’s trying to attack you with this,” Ihrke told Doran. “I think we’re just trying to look at new ways to maybe see if there’s new (possibilities of saving money).”
“I would beg to differ,” Doran replied, “because I’ve been attacked several times.”
Doran appeared to be referring to previous exchanges with McQuinn regarding expenses the sheriff has submitted for consideration of being funded by the Ford County Public Building Commission’s tax levy. McQuinn, a member of the commission, has repeatedly objected to some of the expenses Doran has tried to have funded by the commission’s levy.
“Mark, it has nothing to do with that,” McQuinn told Doran.
Chase McCall of Gibson City, who was overseeing the meeting as chairman of the board’s finance committee, then slammed his gavel.
“We’re done with this pissing contest, OK?” McCall said.
Doran then made a comment to McQuinn: “Glad you showed up. (I was) ambushed.”
“I was asked to show up, studly,” McQuinn responded as he exited the meeting room.
“All right, cool, cool. Does anybody need to go outside for a smoke?” McCall asked those in attendance.
“Yeah, I do,” Doran said.
Doran remained seated, however, and began explaining that he was just frustrated by the board telling him how to “run my office.”
Board member Debbie Smith of rural Paxton then explained to Doran that she had no idea McQuinn would get involved in the discussion after she had posed a question to the sheriff earlier in the meeting about the cost of the inmate health care contract.
“Well, somebody called him in here,” Doran responded.
“I did ask him how it worked in the past,” Smith said. Smith denied, however, inviting McQuinn, who is not a member of the finance committee, to Thursday’s committee meeting to address the topic himself.
Doran then explained the reason the county contracted with Advanced Correctional Healthcare to provide both medical and mental health services at the jail. The company brings a nurse to the jail three times a week to evaluate inmates who complain they are hurting or are ill, Doran said. The company also brings in an on-call doctor to the jail each time an inmate is booked, so that the doctor can confirm the proper medications for an inmate and have them prescribed, if needed, Doran said. The company also provides its own pharmacy with its medications purchased in bulk, which allows a substantial cost savings, Doran said.
“The other thing is X-rays,” Doran said. “We used to have to load (inmates) into an ambulance, take them over (to a hospital), get them X-rayed and bring them back (to the jail),” Doran said. “Now, Advanced Correctional Healthcare contracts with BioTech ... and they’re the ones that can do X-rays in-house. They park their van, bring their little (X-ray) machine out, and they can take the X-rays right here (in the jail) instead of taking (inmates) to the emergency room.
“We save ... about $15,000 to $21,000 a month from what we would be spending otherwise by taking them back and forth.”
Advanced Correctional Healthcare also provides mental health services — something that is particularly needed, Doran said.
Doran also noted that the company protects the jail from liability. Doran said the company helped cover some of the $2.3 million the county paid to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit involving an inmate.
“If we wouldn’t have had them, that would have been all on our insurance,” Doran said.
“That’s exactly why Advanced Correctional Healthcare is needed, because it protects us from liability because we’re not doctors and nurses but we’re asked to do doctors’ and nurses’ work.”
After Doran gave his explanation, Ihrke asked Doran if he would be willing to ask the state’s attorney “what it would take” to have inmates reimburse the county for their meals — “like if it’s a big deal or if it’s simple paperwork.”
McCall pointed out, however, that asking inmates to pay for their meals seems like a fruitless endeavor. McCall noted that even some court fees can be waived by the court these days for low-income defendants.
“Which is most of our inmates who are like that,” Doran added.
In response to another comment by Ihrke, Doran said he would be happy to speak with any board member privately to answer any additional questions they may have about the operation of his office. Doran said, however, he is “not going to get ambushed” at a meeting again.
“I don’t think it was intended to be an ambush,” Ihrke responded.
McCall then interrupted: “We’re beating a dead horse. I am not dying on this hill today.”
McCall then told his colleagues: “I think what you just witnessed between Tom McQuinn and the sheriff has been an ongoing tiff for the past four or five years, maybe longer than that. So when that tiff escalates, so does everything else. That’s it. That’s not the hill I’m dying on today, not in my community. I don’t know what Tom McQuinn’s intentions are, and I don’t really care. It’s not my business. He can wreck his own ship. But the fact is, with him being on the public building commission as our county board liaison, it’s been ongoing. So that’s a little bit of the back story there, and that’s it.”
Ihrke then gave her take: “But I think he had a right to ask a question and put in his information the way he saw it, and I don’t think he was trying to attack or diminish anybody’s authority. I didn’t get that (impression).”
“It’s not the question (he asked), it’s (his) tact,” responded McCall. “The question is fine. The question he had was the same as the question that everybody here has. It’s his tact that brings it into question.”
Also at last week’s finance committee meeting:
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance the proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1 to the full board for its consideration. McCall said the budget projects a $119,360 deficit in the general fund, with revenues projected to total $4.024 million and expenditures $4.143 million. Revenues are expected to be down by $53,863 when compared with this fiscal year’s budget, with expenses expected to be up by $17,548 when compared with this fiscal year’s budget. McCall said the good news is that the county still had $455,000 in cash reserves in the general fund as of the end of last fiscal year.
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposal to raise the circuit clerk’s salary by $1,000, to $57,000, for the 2019-20 year.
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposal to raise the salaries of the supervisor of assessments (to $56,000), supervisor of assessments’ chief deputy ($38,110), judge’s chief deputy ($38,102), chief probation officer ($59,571), assistant public defender ($10,000), sheriff administrative assistant ($39,557), state’s attorney chief deputy ($40,155), treasurer’s deputy ($32,273) and zoning officer ($12,000), effective Dec. 1. Also, all hourly employees are to receive a 25-cent hourly raise under the proposal.
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposal to raise the salaries of unionized probation department employees Rocky Marron (to $54,156), Jennifer Anderson ($34,107) and Ariel Ochoa ($33,941).
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposal to appoint Victor Johnson as a replacement for John Carson on the zoning board of appeals. Carson recently resigned. Johnson’s term would run through March 10, 2020.
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposed schedule of county board meetings for the fiscal year that begins Dec. 1. All meetings are held in the conference room in the county jail and begin at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month.
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposed resolution dividing the county into four assessment districts.
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposed schedule of paid holidays for courthouse employees, showing 13 paid holidays in the upcoming fiscal year.
➜ The committee voted 4-0 to advance to the full board a proposal to sell a property in Lyman Township — whose real estate taxes went unpaid — to Kellie Kief and Stanley Kief for $813.
➜ The committee discussed the possible formation of a Veterans Assistance Commission.