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Thursday, June 21, 2012 01:02 am

Jerome’s well runs dry

Cash-strapped village may cut police

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The village of Jerome is broke and may no longer be able to afford cops.

Mayor Harry Stirmell last week told the board of trustees that the village for the past two years has spent more than it has taken in, but cash reserves now stand at less than $40,000 and will soon be exhausted under a modified budget approved last Thursday at a special board meeting.

The board met under pressure from citizens upset about layoffs in the police department. The board on June 7 reversed an earlier decision to downsize the village police department, voting to rescind the layoff of an officer who was supposed to be let go this month. Last week’s meeting was called to adjust the budget to free up money for the officer’s salary.

The board trimmed a bit, reducing such things as the travel budget. Trustees also agreed to forgo pay for some board meetings and eliminate a take-home car for the police chief. But it wasn’t enough.

“If we go with this budget, the village has a good chance of going bankrupt this fiscal year,” Stirmell announced after the cutting was done. “If the village goes bankrupt, we’ll lose the police department and the county will take over (police duties).”

The village last year had $864,800 in revenue and spent $917,000, Stirmell said. During the prior year, the village took in $863,000 and spent slightly more than $1 million, he said. But the deficit spending cannot continue, he said.

Dorinda Fitzgerald, a certified public accountant who is auditor for the village, told the board that the budget assumes that tax revenue won’t go down, but there are no guarantees.

Noting upticks in national unemployment figures and foreclosures, Stirmell said the economy is a big concern. The village’s insurance costs have gone up dramatically in recent years, he said, and the village may have trouble finding money to make a $51,000 premium payment due in December.

At least one board member saw hope.

“There’s room to cut a lot of stuff here to come up with the money,” said trustee R. Scott McTaggart.

But neither McTaggart nor anyone else at the meeting suggested specific cuts that would result in a balanced budget.

The village plans to sell an SUV acquired during the past few years as part of a drug forfeiture case. Stirmell said the vehicle, now being used for undercover work outside the village, could fetch as much as $20,000. The village had hoped for a windfall from drug forfeitures when it agreed to loan an officer to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration five years ago, Stirmell said. But the village, which is paying the officer’s salary and benefits, has received just $94,000 from forfeiture cases, he said.

And so Jerome, which has a population of 1,414 and no shortage of potholes, has, in essence, been subsidizing the DEA, which has an annual budget of more than $2 billion. The board recently voted to bring the officer back to Jerome this summer. Stirmell said the village, which had hoped for six-figure returns, didn’t recall the officer sooner because the DEA had predicted an increase in forfeitures.

“It’s the old thing: They said it would get better,” Stirmell said.

If the Jerome Police Department is dissolved, the county would answer calls and patrol just as it does in other communities without police departments, said Jack Campbell, chief deputy with the Sangamon County sheriff’s office.

“We would get to it as soon as we could, but the closest deputy might be 20 minutes away,” Campbell said.

The county is responsible for a sliver of unincorporated land east of MacArthur Boulevard and less than a half-mile from Jerome. Campbell said Jerome officers back up sheriff’s deputies on calls and vice versa.

“We would be very sorry to see that police department go,” Campbell said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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