Commissioners debate on DHS money could prevent charitable programs

LAKE COUNTY — For more than 14 years an appropriation of $26,500 was given to the DHS board, much of which was distributed to local groups and programs such as the Girl Scouts, 4-H and DHS' own Christmas for Kids program. This amount is currently reduced to $5,448.

This change in budgeting was caused by the Lake County Commissioners examining the budget and spotting a what was perceived as a lack of accountability on where the DHS board money was being distributed. The County Commissioners are obligated to provide mileage and per diem to the DHS board, but nothing beyond that is required by law.

"No one ever questioned how that money was being spent," said Lake County Clerk, Register of Deeds and CFO Shelly Myers. "When new commissioners came in, they wanted to see what the funds were used for. It came up they were providing money to programs like Christmas for Kids, and the commissioners wanted clarification on where the money was going and if it was all being spent as it should be. They set the budget to zero until this was resolved. It was discussed back and forth and it was determined nothing inappropriate was being done with the money so the DHS board came back asking for $16,500, but now half the board wants this plan clarified and the other half wants this approved."

While this matter is being resolved, the amount going towards the DHS board currently sits at $5,448. This amount will cover the required per diem and mileage of the board members, but leaves little, if anything, left over for the community programs which were getting funds through the board. Complicating matters further is some commissioners don't want the non-required money to be returned to the DHS budget at all.

"The government is not in the business of charity," said Commissioner Dan Sloan. "I believe people need to take personal action to help others, I just don't believe it's the government's role to provide that."

The loss of this money could mean hard times for several local organizations, but none more than the Christmas for Kids program, which received $3,000 each year from the DHS funds so parents in dire financial situations could shop for Christmas presents for their kids without having to pay for them.

"This is the seed money for Christmas for Kids," said Christmas for Kids organizer Sue Brown-Havens. "Without it, I don't think we could have the program at all. How can the government expect people to give money for others when it can't take the first step to care for the people they're supposed to be representing?"

Sloan cited budget restraints as another reason this money should not be returned to the DHS board.

"We have a $1 million budget overflow in general fund expenditures," said Sloan. "If we don't get this under control, in three or four years we could be faced with an emergency manager."

Myers said these figures are not accurate.

"It appears to be $1 million dollars, but we will make most of that back by the end of the year," said Myers. "Two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars we will get back once we spend our Childcare Fund money, plus, we never spend all the money budgeted. We will have enough money leftover to cover the difference and we will roughly break even this year. Every township and village in the county keeps six months of reserve money minimum, so there is no chance we would ever need an emergency manger within the next three to four years."

With programs such as Christmas for Kids hanging in the balance, the issue is sure to be back up for debate at future commissioner meetings.

"I'm sad this is occurring because it's not necessary," said DHS board member Don Arquette. "We offered to decrease the amount appropriated to $16,500 so we could both do our job and help with the budget but they still said 'no.' They don't want to give us enough to do anything with."