The Henry County Sheriff’s Department faces the Herculean task of continuing to provide public safety services while working with stretched-to-the-limit personnel numbers and aging equipment.

The Henry County Sheriff’s Department faces the Herculean task of continuing to provide public safety services while working with stretched-to-the-limit personnel numbers and aging equipment.

“We have at least 10 squad cars with well over 100,000 miles on them. You can be in a situation where you’re driving at a high speed to try and get somewhere to help someone and the car’s falling apart around you,” said Henry County Sheriff Jim Padilla.

At times, staff shortage can mean only two deputies are patrolling all of Henry County’s 827 square miles, added deputy Joe Bedford.

Unfunded state and federal mandates add to the department’s fiscal woes. Acquiring body cameras alone for the department would cost $4,000-per-person.

“Unfortunately, we have had a budget deficit for the past several years due to declining state revenues,” said Henry County administrator Colleen Gillaspie.

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Henry County voters will be asked to help the sheriff’s department by approving a public safety sales tax referendum.

If approved, the one-half of 1 percent sales tax increase could generate approximately $1.5 million a year to be used exclusively for public safety services.

“The broad definition is this can be used for anything related to public safety, which they’ve defined as crime prevention and detection, the judicial offices, the state’s attorney’s office, anything related to the courts or public defender, wages, and equipment,” said Gillespie.

The sales tax would be similar to a school facilities sales tax approved by Henry County voters in 2013.

“In Geneseo alone it’s easy to see how that sales tax has helped the schools as far as letting them add on and improve their buildings,” said Bedford.

Much like the school tax, if passed, the public safety tax wouldn’t apply to items such as groceries, titled vehicles, prescription drugs and certain medical equipment, like diabetic syringes.

If passed, everyone making purchases in Henry County would help fund public safety services, regardless of if they own property in the county or even live in the county.

“Anyone who travels through Henry County and stops and shops would help pay for public safety,” explained the sheriff.

With Interstate 80 and Interstate 74 both crossing the county, thousands of travelers stop in the county every week.

“The number of people from out of the county who go to Bishop Hill or stop in Geneseo or visit Kewanee is staggering,” said Padilla.

Likewise, when Henry County residents make purchases in other counties, they’re helping pay for those counties public safety services.

“Whiteside is the only other county around us that doesn’t have a public safety sales tax,” said Bedford.

“When you go to Galesburg to eat, you’re paying for Knox County public safety. When you shop at Sam’s in Moline, you’re paying for Rock Island County public safety,” explained Padilla.

“People say that if the public safety tax is passed, people will stop shopping in Henry County, but that’s simply not true. We still go to the Quad-Cities and shop for goods and services and don’t even notice that they have a public safety sales tax in place,” said Bedford.

If a simple majority of voters approve the Henry County public safety sales tax referendum on Nov. 8, the funds will be beneficial to the future of the sheriff’s department, said Bedford.

The sheriff’s department has a $5 million annual budget, which represents 40 percent of the county’s budget, said Padilla.

“The cost of running the sheriff’s department is very expensive. We have a jail to operate 24/7 as well as providing patrol services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said Bedford.

“Henry County’s 827 square miles is a lot of territory to cover. The majority of that is comprised of rural areas, which is what we respond to. If we lose staff, we’re going to be hurting to get out and answer emergency calls,” said Padilla. “It’s hard to protect lives when you don’t have the staff.”

Without the funds, personnel cuts could be necessary, said the sheriff.

“If we do lose staff, the way it works is the last one in is the first one out. Which for us means the guys with the lowest seniority would lose their jobs, and that would mean we would lose jail staff,” said Padilla. “Of course, we have to staff our jail, so we’d end up pulling our patrol people off the roads to do that instead. That would leave very few, if anyone, to respond to calls for help.

“Not having the staff to respond to calls is horribly scary,” he said.

A public safety sales tax has appeared before Henry County voters twice before and was defeated each time, but supporters hope, with more education about the issue, voters will approve it this time.

“No one likes the word ‘tax,’ and we understand that. I wish we could call it the ‘public safety help us please’ measure or something,” said Bedford. “We hope when voters go to the polls they’ll really think this through and realize it’s a good thing. It’s a way to support public safety without Henry County citizens getting slammed with the entire bill.”

“The No. 1 positive of this over a property tax is that this is a way for Joe Blow driving in from Chicago or driving through going to Des Moines to help pay for our services, instead of just relying on the Henry County taxpayer,” said the county administrator.

If approved, the tax would go into effect on July 1, 2017, with the county likely receiving the first funds several months later.

“This wouldn’t have a huge impact on our coffers until Fiscal Year 2018,” said Gillespie.