McLean County Board members have started debating whether the county should begin reopening its economy ahead of Gov. JB Pritzker’s timetable, but it’s not clear the governing body has the authority to do so on its own.
McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp told the County Board on Tuesday, based on his preliminary research, public health matters involving isolation and quarantine in Illinois are controlled by the Illinois Department of Public Health and local health departments.
He cited at least three counties in Illinois that have adopted their own reopening plans: Adams, Madison and Clark. But Clark County’s ordinance doesn’t appear to have involvement from its health department.
“In reviewing all of those plans, I found no citation to any statutory authority or any administrative authority that gave those units of government the ability to do so,” Knapp said.
The McLean County Board of Health, which governs the county health department, has scheduled a meeting on Thursday to discuss the county’s proposal to adopt the Heart of Illinois plan. It would allow for a faster reopening of businesses than the governor’s Restore Illinois plan. The County Board has scheduled a special meeting to vote on the plan May 28.
County Board chairman John McIntyre has said the county wants to give local health officials the opportunity to address any concerns they may have about reopening, but he indicated earlier Tuesday he planned to support the Heart of Illinois plan. Peoria-area officials crafted the plan earlier this month, but some locally backed off implementation after Pritzker threatened to withhold federal reimbursements related to COVID-19. He later said businesses that violate the stay-at-home order could face misdemeanor charges.
County Board member Carlo Robustelli suggested the county should have the endorsement of county health officials before bringing this to a vote.
“This is a very different orientation, one in which elected officials are driving it and not public health officials,” Robustelli said. “That’s big difference between the approaches between the two.”
County Board member George Wendt pushed for a faster reopening. He said the pandemic-related shutdown delayed many medical procedures, including those for cancer patients. The 79-year-old Wendt, who is in remission after a seven-year battle with cancer, recalled a blood test he needed immediately before he started chemotherapy and later had to undergo a heart operation.
“These things could not have been done under the hospital shutdown originally and I would have been dead,” Wendt said.
County Board member Chuck Erickson originally proposed the county look to reopen on May 23, but later backed the Heart of Illinois plan. It carves out an 11-county area that has seen lower prevalence of COVID-19.
The County Board approved sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and IDPH to keep the mobile COVID-19 testing site at the McLean County Fairgrounds open beyond the scheduled May 22 closure.
County Board member Elizabeth Johnston said that should factor into any timeline the county should consider for reopening.
“Having some understanding of what our options will be would be really helpful because a strong portion of the HOI is that we have community-based testing so that we can keep tabs," Johnston said.
The state announced last week it was closing the testing site, arguing the site had been underutilized. The state later decided to keep it open for another week. Testing has increased since the site started allowing front-line workers who aren’t symptomatic.
Robustelli also called on the Board of Health to outline plans for the county to expand COVID-19 testing regardless of how long the state-run state remains in Bloomington.
The County Board voted 15-4 to freeze pay for the county circuit clerk and coroner for the next four years while reducing the county auditor's salary following a job realignment in 2018.
County Board member William Caisley argued against the pay freezes for circuit clerk and coroner, saying the coroner in particular has an increased workload due to COVID-19 and the county would eventually fall behind in paying fair salaries.
“To freeze their salaries at the present amount seems to me to be shortsighted,” Caisley said.
Robustelli considered the six-figure salaries fair during a time when the pandemic has caused financial uncertainty for the county.
“The range of spectrum of potential implications going into the next couple of years is tremendous,” Robustelli said.
The circuit clerk’s salary would be locked in at $105,289 through 2024, the coroner would be paid $100,324 for the next four years and the auditor’s pay would be set at $80,600 through 2024, according to county documents.
The auditor's salary was cut from $100,324 after bookkeeping duties were shifted to the county treasurer's office.
The county sets the salaries before the new terms begin in December.
The County Board also approved extending the enterprise zone for Ferrero to expand its candy production plant in Bloomington. Ferrero is planning a $70 million expansion at one of its facilities.
The Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council brokered the incentive to encourage Ferrero to expand in Bloomington. The expansion would add 50 jobs at the plant.
McLean County is one of five government bodies that must sign off on the plan. Bloomington did last week and Normal approved it on Monday.
Flurry Of Public Comment
McIntyre closed public comment after the customary 15 minutes after 10 public letters were read into the record during the virtual meeting.
The county received 54 letters from the public; 27 were related to the county’s reopening plans, 21 regarding housing for the homeless during COVID-19 and six regarding the jail population during the pandemic.
The McLean County Health Department has said it has two undisclosed locations that it can use to temporarily house anyone who needs to be placed in isolation or quarantine and that FEMA will pay the cost. Illinois People’s Action has called for the county to place the entire homeless population into single-unit housing to prevent an outbreak.
The County Board Justice Committee earlier this month rejected a request to pay for video conference for inmates. Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal and the Bloomington-Normal Democratic Socialists of America pushed for the county to cover those costs since visitors have been banned from the jail during the pandemic.
WGLT updated this story to reflect the salary adjustment for McLean County Auditor.
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