Taxes, death, politics sure things in Kane County
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org October 31, 2013 6:44PM
Kane County Coroner Rob Russell says he need more money now to cover 2013 office expenses, but county board members say he will have to wait until the request is reviewed. | Sun-Times Media file
Updated: December 2, 2013 12:45PM
You know what they say about death and taxes: Both are inevitable.
Unfortunately, so are politics.
And all three seem to be coming in to play in Kane County. At least that’s what Coroner Rob Russell suggests is the case in budget battles with Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen.
Money squabbles at the county level are as common as they are complicated because the budget is the only control the board has over all the departments. But politics seems to be rearing its ugly head in this ongoing fight. Russell backed Lauzen’s primary opponent Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns in a campaign that turned ugly. And Kane County Conservative Coalition founder Jon Zahm, who worked as a consultant for Lauzen’s campaign, endorsed Russell’s Democratic opponent Tao Martinez and aggressively went after Russell in the general election.
“I was not his political choice,” said Russell, when I asked about the rising animosity between the two men both in their first terms of county office.
But Lauzen, a state senator for 20 years, becomes incensed when that subject is broached.
“This is not about politics,” he insisted. “It’s about math.”
Certainly lots of numbers are being tossed around with accusations in what has become an increasingly public fight. In a nutshell, here’s what’s going on:
Russell, whose request for a 17 percent increase in his 2014 budget got turned down earlier by the county, is asking for an additional $87,927 to finish out the current fiscal year. He insists these are funds desperately needed to perform basic functions such as autopsies and toxicology reports, and pay for overtime.
The coroner’s request, however, was stricken from the County Board agenda earlier this week, with Lauzen claiming Russell did not get details to the review committee in a timely manner. But the coroner maintains he sent long explanations to Lauzen’s office, the committee head, another board member and the state’s attorney’s office.
Russell, who also wants to hire two new deputy coroners in what he believes is a cost-cutting move to deal with overtime, said he needs the extra money to run an office that he believes had been neglected under predecessor Chuck West, who died last year while facing felony misconduct charges. As an example, Russell points to the 27 heroin deaths in 2012 where autopsies were not performed, despite his belief that all drug overdoses be autopsied.
His office, he added, is budgeted for 103 autopsies, but so far has performed 145; with up to another 10 expected before the end of 2013.
“I’m not going to shortchange grieving families,” he said.
But Lauzen’s counterpoint hits home with many Kane County residents: He’s not going to overcharge taxpayers.
“This is about holding the line on the property tax levy,” he said. “And in order to do that, departments have to live within their means.” A 50 percent increase in staff, 33 percent increase in payroll and 12 percent increase in overage, he added, is simply not doable.
The chairman points to a three-page log of meetings to show he’s “bent over backward” to work with Russell. The coroner, meanwhile, has his own string of documents he says proves concerns early on were ignored.
And so, the very public battle rounds will continue, unless (here’s a not so novel idea we rarely see these days) these two obviously intelligent elected officials agree to sit down and hash out their differences in private.
Lauzen told me he’s committed to looking carefully at autopsies and finding a “workable solution” that could include factoring in some of Russell’s requests over a three- or four-year period. At the same time, he insisted it’s all about keeping his promise to taxpayers.
Russell says it’s all about maintaining the integrity of his department.
I say it’s about leaving egos, and politics, at the door and finding common ground.