Services At Risk In County Funding Search

Knox County SealThe Knox County Board is still in the exploratory phase, but is considering a request to take over administrative management of a fund utilized by the 9th Judicial Circuit.

The matter was discussed during February’s Knox County Finance Committee meeting in closed session. Currently, the 9th Judicial Court Services Probation fund is administered out of McDonough County, but state statute says the “treasurer of the most populous county” – which is Knox in the 9th Judicial Circuit – submits cost statements and handles other administrative functions. Years ago, Knox allowed McDonough County to manage the fund for reasons that have not been made expressly clear – though several sources have said previous County Treasurer’s found the fund’s management to be a hassle.

Knox County Board member Bob Bondi tells WGIL they are trying to understand why the fund management has been put on another county in the first place.

“It seems like maybe we’re just shirking our duty and we don’t want to impose on anybody, and we’re just trying to have the Judges and McDonough County, everybody, explain what’s going on,” says Bondi.

Knox County has been attempting to pay for Probation and Court Services costs in the face of a shortfall in state aid through their General Fund. This, despite state statute suggesting the Division of Probation Services of the Supreme Court will pay for 100% of the salary of all approved chief managing officers, probation officers, and supervisor positions, among others. Knox has been paying for some of these services out of its General Fund. The reason changing administration of the fund out of McDonough County is important to the Knox County Board is that some of the employees counted under the Court Services probation fund could be counted as employees of Knox County. The costs associated with those employees such as pensions and social security could be levied against in Knox County in addition to some other cash flow benefits such as offsetting other county expenses.

Multiple County Board members and County officials have explained that revenue is driving decisions in Knox County. Part and parcel with revenue gains, the 9th Judicial Circuit’s Court Services Department has been utilizing a carry-over fund of about $450-thousand annually to make up the difference between their costs and combined state and county aid. This was after a budget increase request of 12% was denied by the Knox County Board. As of last year, the carry-over fund is down to $43-thousand.

Because that fund has been all but exhausted, Chief Judge James Stewart received permission from the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC) to utilize funds from the 9th Judicial Probation Fee fund to supplement employee salaries – the legality of which has been questioned by certain personnel within Knox County. Stewart tells WGIL all of the Court Services and Probation needs are set down by statute and he approached the problem through various methods, including raising the probation fee paid monthly.

“I believed that I could get [Knox County] a couple of years in which they wouldn’t have to worry about us, they could worry about resolving their fiscal problems and we could remain funded,” says Stewart.

Multiple sources have explained that funds available in the 9th Judicial Probation Fee fund may be used to support programs that are part of juvenile delinquency intervention programs within the County. Included in that category is the Mary Davis Home – which is experiencing a $6.1-million shortfall in state reimbursements since 2002. Funding the Mary Davis Home has been a consistent source of discussion for the Knox County Board – which has considered financial distress filings with the State of Illinois. Court Services Director Mike Condon says that the funds, statutorily, could be used with an opinion from the Supreme Court.

“My thought process on that would be, if as an example, it was a legal issue, that we could do that,” says Condon. “Whatever we would give to the Mary Davis Home to keep them afloat, Knox County would have to make up to us to fund our budget.”

Additional funds could be available through the Probation Fee fund to finance the Mary Davis Home if not for the salary supplements currently being allocated from the fund. However, according to state statute, the grants from the probation and court services fund “shall be for no more than one year.”

In addition to increasing the probation fee, Judge Stewart also altered the hierarchy of the payments a clerk receives from bond money to increase Court Services revenue.

“The government was getting paid first, the victims were getting paid last,” says Stewart. “Frankly I think that that was wrong, I always thought it was wrong. Since I’m Chief Judge and since I was changing it anyway, I elevated victim compensation to number one, victim restitution is paid for first out of monies held by the [circuit] clerk.”

With the restructuring, the County is getting paid last as far as bond money is concerned – something Knox County State’s Attorney John Pepmeyer, according to committee meeting minutes, says is a “deliberate power play.”

Knox County Board members, as recently as March’s County Finance Committee meeting were curious as to the progress of talks on the transfer of the Probation Fee fund from McDonough to Knox County. State’s Attorney Pepmeyer has been representing the County Board in talks with the 9th Judicial Circuit. Multiple Knox County Board members have stated that things, currently, are up in the air in the discussions.

Even with the aims and objectives of both the Knox County Board and the 9th Judicial Circuit the funding, according to documents, will be “so desperate that core judicial functions will be at risk.” If probation and court services cannot be funded statutorily, current estimates put a constitutional crisis at three years out in the 9th Judicial Circuit; meaning, probation dies in the circuit.

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