Peoria County board approves budget, cuts auditor’s office staff

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The Peoria County board officially voted 15-2 to approve its new 2022 budget, which in turn cut the auditor’s office staff down to just the auditor herself.

The decision, Thursday night, is one Jessica Thomas, Peoria County auditor, said she was expecting but was hoping to avoid.

Before the meeting, more than 20 people rallied outside of the Peoria County Courthouse hoping to convince the board to restore funding to the auditor’s office and keep the three employees whose positions would be eliminated due to the office’s reduced funding.

Many of these people, including all three female employees and Thomas herself, spoke during the public comment section of the county board meeting in the hopes their requests would be granted.

“When you fire the Auditor’s Office you leave the county wide open for fraud, so for all of our hard work and diligence, we are now facing the prospect of being out of work during the pandemic a few days after Christmas,” Margaret Kowalski, assistant auditor, said. “Please check your conscience, you know this is not right.”

However, before the actual budget vote, the board voted, 16-1. to guarantee that the women losing their positions in the auditor’s office would be granted another position in the organization at the same pay rate.

Scott Sorrell, the County administrator, said one position would be in the highway department and they’ll work over the next few weeks to determine the best fit for the other two women if they choose to accept it.

Once that amendment passed, Jodi Hoos, Peoria County State’s Attorney, addressed the room to clarify why the auditor’s office is losing its staff and delegating those duties to the Finance Department.

Hoos accused Thomas of mismanaging the office and said the office isn’t being eliminated but is being “right-sized for what the duties currently are.”

“The bottom line is this, the auditor has mismanaged her budget. She has projected to be going over this year by many thousands,” Hoos said. “The auditor has mismanaged her office for several months now. The county has been in a number of union grievances as well as a number of other potential claims and suits against the county.”

Hoos said if the board did nothing in response to these claims then it would not be doing its job.

Thomas and two of her employees spoke out after the meeting and said the budget’s approval and Hoos’ comments were both disheartening. Thomas said Hoos’ comments were ‘slanderous at best’ and lacked context.

“I’m disappointed that state’s attorney Hoos was able to give comments in her official capacity as State’s Attorney as a county-wide elected official, but I was unable to be recognized by chairman [James] Fennell to give comments in my official capacity as County Auditor,” Thomas said.

She also addressed the mismanagement claims.

“Mismanagement in that term and its entirety means that you’re utilizing county resources for things outside of county purposes,” Thomas said. “I have never mismanaged any funds working for Peoria County, so that was something I was greatly offended by. And by her saying that I’m mismanaging my staff with the grievances, the grievances were filed for county administration for the harassment and intimidation of my staff.”

Lorry Saunders, Assistant Auditor, said she was angry about the vote and said she felt the county board doesn’t discuss anything but rather votes unanimously. She also said she believed Hoos’ comments were not true.

“Her comments that Jessica mismanaged the funds and mismanaged the office are very incorrect,” Saunders said. “My job was threatened by the county administration four times and not one time has Jessica ever threatened to fire me.”

Brittany Strickland, Assistant Auditor, also said she felt disheartened, but she thanked board member Brandy Bryant for voting against the proposal, along with Matt Windish.

“I’m concerned that the people’s voices weren’t honored or discussed,” Strickland said. “I think it’s a gracious offer to extend us employment at our current salaries, however, I think the county board has to stand behind the [2018] referendum.”

Although both Strickland and Saunders will have to leave the auditor’s office next year, they said they would absolutely consider the board’s proposal for a guaranteed position at the same pay rate.

Thomas said she wants her staff to do what’s best for them and she will pray for their future endeavors if they can’t get the office restored.

Hoos also said the board didn’t act illegally with reducing the auditor’s staff saying its core function is to set budgets. But Thomas said she doesn’t believe that’s true and said her next step is to pursue legal counsel to see what her options are to continue fighting for her office.

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