Kane County forest board rejects police merger

Citing a possible plummet in public support for future land acquisitions, Kane County Forest Preserve District commissioners rejected a government consolidation plan Tuesday that Sheriff Ron Hain estimated could save as much as $455,262 a year.

The plan would have merged the forest preserve district’s police force with the sheriff’s department.

Hain, at the suggestion of county board member David Brown, pitched a plan to eliminate the six-figure forest preserve district’s police chief position upon Chief Mike Gilloffo’s upcoming retirement. The remaining full-time staff members would then fall under the sheriff’s umbrella, but forest preserve administration would maintain control of the deployment of that staff. Part-time employees, some of whom have been with the forest district for more than 20 years, would either be let go or have reduced hours.

Hain cited statistics that show sheriff’s deputies already assist with most service calls and arrive at the location usually in half the time as the forest district police. That said, Hain was not an enthusiastic supporter of the consolidation.

“This is a very polarizing topic,” Hain said. “My office gains absolutely nothing from this other than more work and more weight on my budget. I’m really ambivalent. But I believe it’s responsible government to see where we can consolidate services across the county.”

Forest Preserve Executive Director Monica Meyers was even less supportive of the plan. She noted the true cost savings to taxpayers is boils down to saving the cost of the chief’s salary, which is far less than $455,000. Most of that total would just get shifted into the sheriff’s budget.

The cost for the forest preserve district is a likely loss of customer service and the potential for rocky political battles down the road.

Meyers said eliminating or minimizing part-time positions would strip away some of the most active and knowledgeable public safety officers in the forest district. The various trails and frequent encroachment on public land by neighboring private property owners are issues unique to patrolling the preserves and may not be as high of a priority for officers otherwise focused on emergency calls, she said.

“By doing this, what are we trying to improve?” Meyers said. “We’ve gotten no complaints on racial discrimination, excessive force or any inappropriate officer activity.”

Meyers pointed to a survey that showed 94% of users already feel safe in the county’s preserves. Commissioners worried if those satisfaction numbers fell, voters would no longer support the future land acquisitions that are the heart of the district’s preservation mission. They also feared what might happen when the time comes that Hain is no longer the sheriff. If a new sheriff needed to trim the budget, rebuilding the forest district’s police force could be an arduous task.

With all that in mind, commissioners unanimously deemed the potential savings not worth the risk.

“Responsible government is not only about saving money,” said commissioner Mavis Bates. “It’s also about giving our constituents the very best service possible.”