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posted: 10/18/2011 5:00 AM

Illinois' most vulnerable are at risk

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Daily Herald Editorial Board

They serve the most vulnerable in society, relying on government payments to survive and help their clients deal with a host of issues.

But as today's installment of "Deadbeat Illinois: The Painful Price of Unpaid Bills" reveals, social service agencies and the people they serve are faced with finding other ways to survive as Illinois falls tragically behind in its payments.

"The burden of survival for human services has been passed to our dedicated staff," said Gretchen Vapnar, executive director of the Community Crisis Center in Elgin, which relies on Illinois for half of its funding. It maxed out a line of credit this year while waiting for funding, leaving employees to take a month of unpaid leave.

That kind of sacrifice is not uncommon in the social service field in Illinois these days. Lambs Farm in Libertyville, an organization to help the developmentally disabled, stopped contributing to employees' retirement accounts, instituted furlough days and had years without raises.

While that may not seem all that different from what employees in the private sector face, consider this: These employees and their employers must rely on the politicians in Springfield to help. We asked Sunday of those politicians, many of whom will be up for election in 2012, what they plan to do to get the bills paid on time. Listen for their answers in the coming months. If you don't like what you hear, then find a candidate who has better ideas.

Make sure you know the statistics and make sure they know them too. As reported today by the The Associated Press, Illinois ranks first nationwide when it comes to nonprofit groups reporting late payments from the government, according to a survey last year by the nonpartisan Urban Institute. More than 80 percent of Illinois groups say their money doesn't come on time.

An AP analysis found that the backlog wasn't as dire for human services as for other parts of state government, but it still amounted to more than 31,000 bills totaling $425 million. The Department of Human Services, for instance, had $105.4 million in bills that were more than a month old as of early September. They ranged from grants to nonprofit groups to food to burial expenses.

The stories seem endless of agencies strapped for cash from the state and having to slash expenses and find other ways to provide the needed services.

In Lisle, for example, the Ray Graham Association has had to eliminate more than 30 positions, some of them layoffs, to survive, according to a story today by Mike Riopell, the Daily Herald's state government writer. The association also had to close down a Bloomingdale facility. Leaders of the association are proud to say, and we're heartened to hear, that no one was dropped who needed services. "It doesn't mean it's not painful," said President Kim Zoeller.

But they found a way. And now it's way past time for the state to find a way to solve this mess.

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