'This Is America': Peorians Speak Out Against County Board Plan To Slash Auditor Office Staff
Editor's note: Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas is a member of the WCBU Community Advisory Board.
The proposed firing of three employees in the Peoria County Auditor’s office led to emotional and heated comments during Tuesday’s Peoria County Board executive meeting.
The board’s proposed 2022 budget — which will be formally voted on next month — would cut three positions from the auditor's office, leaving elected auditor Jessica Thomas as the office's only employee.
Thomas has said her office already is experiencing delays after the county board previously removed some fiscal duties from her purview, a move she claimed was unlawful.
In a set of prepared remarks, board vice chairman Jim Fennell said on Tuesday the auditor's office's workload does not warrant additional employees beyond Thomas.
"It is unfortunate that the county auditor has chosen to make these budget deliberations personal, instead of looking at the best for the taxpayers," Fennell said. “Resources are finite. … We have shifting priorities.”
In response, Thomas told Fennell the move was indeed personal.
“Can you explain that to my three union women employees, that, 'It’s not personal?' Please explain to them how that's not personal," she said. "The undue stress and hardship you’re putting on these women are unbearable. And it’s sickening. It’s sickening."
Lorry Saunders is one of the three workers whose job is on the line. She began working for Thomas three months ago, following a four-month period in which her position was unfilled.
Before addressing the board on Tuesday, Saunders became emotional.
She said she realized after she sat down that she was likely sitting in the chair previously occupied by her late mother, Bonnie Hester. (Hester, who died in November, represented the 1st District as a board member several years ago).
In her comments, Saunders echoed Thomas' allegations around the illegality of the process through which the budget decision was reached. She also described issues she’s had with the county since getting hired.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s frustrating. It’s intimidating,” she said. “Yes, it is personal. ... Eliminating the auditor's office and its staff invites fraudulent behavior.”
‘A slap in the taxpayers’ faces’
After the meeting, county administrator Scott Sorrel told WCBU that automation software can perform the duties of the three employees, and that Thomas has access to this software for the purposes of her work.
In addition, the county employs a finance office that oversees internal auditing. By approving the salaries of Thomas’ three staffers, the county is effectively paying to duplicate work, he said.
“The volume of work being done in that office does not warrant three employees,” he said. “We looked at a process improvement, and how … we can use automation and software to our advantage.”
Thomas said that logic disobeys the will of the people of Peoria County.
When voters passed a 2018 referendum to preserve the independent auditor’s office, the county board should have considered then whether it was financially wise to continue paying for an internal finance office, as well as automation software.
What the board is proposing to preserve with the 2022 budget is not what voters wanted, said Thomas.
“Keeping the finance office is a slap in the taxpayers’ faces,” she said. “They voted to keep the office of the auditor. They did not vote for you guys to duplicate those duties and finance those duties and continually take from a state-mandated office.”
The county’s move to eliminate the three positions is opposed by AFSCME Local 3586, the union representing auditor's office employees. Joined by activists, the union protested outside the courthouse on Monday, ABC reported.
Sorrel said the county board's role is to carefully review budget needs and choose how to fund offices, including that of the auditor.
While the proposed budget removes three union jobs in the auditor’s office, it also would add four AFSCME positions across Facilities and Grounds Maintenance, the County Clerk’s office and the County Highway Department. The net result to the AFSCME bargaining unit, Sorrel said, is an increase of one full-time position.
Money also will be put toward hiring a deputy and corrections staff, which are represented by the Fraternal Order of Police union.
Additionally, he said, the proposed budget calls for increased hours for 26 part-time bailiffs. (The extra hours leads to what would be 5.2 more full-time positions, all represented by AFSCME.)
Nicholis Hall is a member of the Peoria chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. He slammed the county board for diverting funds from a democratically-elected office into a department represented by the FOP.
"Defunding the auditor's office is not acceptable under these conditions," he said. "The potential lawsuits from the union could outweigh any savings that might be made by cutting these jobs."
Resident Linda Bollinger said the board's decision reminded her of when former Peoria County Auditor Carol VanWinkle resigned in 2016.
At that time, budget cuts the county board approved would have left the office with one person, and VanWinkle said that would have made her job impossible.
"This is America, folks. At least it was," Bollinger said. "What does it say that this county board is so intent on controlling how their expenditures of money are decided upon?"
The board and its members are not taking their votes lightly, and they are hearing what people are saying, Sorrel told WCBU after the meeting.
“It is without a doubt an emotionally charged issue,” Sorrel said. “(Taxpayers) entrust the county board to have efficient and effective delivery of the services that the county delivers. … That is the single most important thing the county board focuses on. Sometimes, that means they make easy decisions. Sometimes that means they make hard and unpopular decisions.”
The county board will take a final vote on the budget on Oct. 14.