JOLIET – It’s that time of year when the state government does not pass a budget, a new routine that has become the focus of constituents who head to Springfield.
Social service agencies are closing group homes. Meals on Wheels has been slowed down. The city of Joliet is looking for ways to fill the gap created by the vacuum in state spending.
Everyone talks about the budget, but no one in the state capital has managed to do anything about it for three years. With the state fiscal year coming to a close at the end of June, this year still looks a lot like the past two.
“The first item on the agenda, of course, was the budget,” said Mary Jaworski, president of the Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Jaworski was referring to the chamber’s annual drive-down to Springfield last week.
The trip included meetings with Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate Leader John Cullerton and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.
“We talked about the budget 80 percent of the time,” Jaworski said.
It didn’t used to be that way on the chamber visits to Springfield leaders, she said.
Jaworski and chamber Vice President Mike Paone both said they got the sense that the opposite sides are not as firmly entrenched as in the past two years.
“The catchphrase is degrees apart,” Paone said.
In the meantime, however, chamber nonprofit members who provide social services are struggling, he said.
“Some of these agencies are not only hit hard, they’re on the verge,” Paone said, suggesting the future of some agencies is in question. “We’ve heard from a great number of them that they’ve already had to reduce services and have had to turn clients away.”
Group homes closing
Cornerstone Services, a Joliet-based agency that has contracts with the state to provide services for people with disabilities, has started closing group homes because it does not have the money to staff them.
“Just this past month,we closed a group home where four women lived for 20 years,” Cornerstone CEO Ben Stortz said. “We just can’t staff our homes. We’re kind of consolidating and contracting. Later this year, we have plans to close three more homes.”
Cornerstone has 42 group homes now.
The homes provide services for people with disabilities who otherwise might be living in a state institution. The state pays Cornerstone to provide the service, which provides a preferable living environment for the clients.
But Cornerstone has a 22 percent vacancy rate in staffing because it can’t keep workers at the wages it’s able to pay, Stortz said. He testified last week at a Senate appropriations hearing for a bill that would add $330 million in funding to increase wages for direct-care workers, who on average make $9.35 an hour.
“They get the issue,” Stortz said. “I think the typical response is Democrats say they want to do it. Republicans say they want to do it, but in the context of a balanced budget.”
The expectation, he said, is that the bill will be passed by the Democratic Legislature, be vetoed by the governor, and not get enough votes to override the veto.
Stortz said he heard nothing in Springfield last week to persuade him to change plans for closing more group homes.
Seniors signing up for Meals on Wheels for the first time are waiting longer to qualify for the program, said Barry Kolanowski, executive director of Senior Services of Will County.
“How we’re managing this whole process is just cutting back on staff,” Kolanowski said.
The Joliet-based agency has kept up services, but it takes longer to get to clients because staff has shrunk with the slowdown in state funds. Seniors must be checked out to ensure they qualify for Meals on Wheels and other services the agency provides, and Senior Services has fewer caseworkers to meet with clients.
“Their caseloads are as high as 500 people that they have to deal with,” Kolanowski said. “We have a waiting list of people just waiting to get a service. That list got as high as 400 last fall.”
Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk earlier this month told the city council that the city may have to step in to avoid losing social service agencies that are not getting funding due from the state.
“It’s not our problem, but it’s become our problem.” O’Dekirk told the council.
O’Dekirk said he became aware of how serious the situation is after meeting with staff at the Spanish Community Center.
The big problem is money.
O’Dekirk last week said the city is not necessarily looking at funding agencies that are not getting their money from the state. He has asked the city council Diversity and Community Relations Committee headed by Councilwoman Bettye Gavin to delve into the problem.
O’Dekirk said he has become convinced that the state budget stalemate is reaching a critical point for some social service agencies.
“If other units of government don’t do anything,” he said, “some of these organizations are going to cut services or close shop.”
Meanwhile, Illinois Partners for Human Service has taken a different approach since it came into existence eight years ago. The organization, which Executive Director Judith Gethner described as “an advocacy umbrella that represents human services throughout Illinois,” was built to bring together the entire human services sector to educate and promote policies that benefit human services and ultimately, society as a whole.
The nonprofit operates on private donations and does not seek government funding. But because of the state’s budget turmoil, much of the group’s work is done with the lack of a state budget in mind, and the unpredictable nature of state funding of human services organizations hanging overhead.
“Because we have no government funding, that’s why we’re able to do the work we do,” Gethner said. “We can advocate and say things that government-funded nonprofits cannot. Because we’re independent completely, we do our own fundraising from foundations and we are really able to be the voice of human services.”
IPHS is big on “human infrastructure”, which speaks to business folks with numbers and data. The idea is that one way or another businesses, and people in general, will wind up paying for having poor human services in the long run, often far more than they would if they support the services up front with donations or grants.
“Our biggest concern should be the business community,” Gethner said. “They need to care. If this human infrastructure exists in their communities, and there aren’t places for child care or senior care, their employees will be hindered. There will be a high rate of turnover and absenteeism.”
As Gethner put it, if someone has to call off work to take care of their child or grandparent because human services have depleted, that’s bad for business. If a family wants to relocate in Illinois for a job, but chooses not to because their prospective community doesn’t have proper services available for their autistic child, that’s bad for business, too.
Gethner explained that businesses are impacted by consumers who have to weigh wants and needs in times of crisis. She said if someone’s job is to provide domestic violence services, but they’re out of work because of a lack of state funding, the economy suffers as that person will consume less.
“If you’re not working, you’re not consuming,” Gethner said. “We need to articulate in business terms the return on investment for what we do as nonprofits.”
It will cost taxpayers more in the long run to not properly fund mental health groups and services, she said.
“If a person is not treated for a mental illness, they can go to the emergency room, end up homeless, get picked up by the police, wind up in jail – or worse – and that costs [the state] a lot more tax money,” Gethner said.