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updated: 7/1/2016 5:44 PM

Social agencies, colleges relieved by budget vote but cautious

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  • In a press conference in May railing against Illinois' lack of funding for social services, Jannet Alvarado of Elgin spoke on behalf of the Latino Treatment Center in Elgin, which cut its staff in half and eliminated some services. Next to her are Kane County Board member Cristina Castro, a candidate for Illinois Senate, and Adriana Trino, executive director of the Latino Treatment Center.

      In a press conference in May railing against Illinois' lack of funding for social services, Jannet Alvarado of Elgin spoke on behalf of the Latino Treatment Center in Elgin, which cut its staff in half and eliminated some services. Next to her are Kane County Board member Cristina Castro, a candidate for Illinois Senate, and Adriana Trino, executive director of the Latino Treatment Center.
    Elena Ferrarin | Staff Photographer

 
 

Suburban social service providers and financially needy students are breathing a little easier after the Illinois legislature overwhelmingly approved a stopgap spending plan for the first half of the fiscal year that begins Friday.

Along with funding elementary and secondary education for a full year, keeping prisons operational and funding road construction, the plan pays social service agencies $670 million to cover the next six months plus roughly 65 percent of the amount owed them by the state of Illinois while it went a full year without a budget as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders battled.

But Adriana Trina, executive director of the Elgin-based Latino Treatment Center, said the social service agencies that were most in need of Thursday's action are already out of business.

"The ones who were severely impacted are gone," Trina said. "They couldn't make it past January."

Her agency too would have had to have closed its West Chicago location June 1 if she hadn't reached out to the legislature's Latino caucus to release the money she needed in May.

But Thursday's action brought her no money beyond that.

Knowing that 20 percent of her budget was gone at the beginning of the year -- regardless of when the rest would have been paid -- led her to cut salaries and four employees. The remaining staff now engage even in maintenance duties and she has had to run some of the center's groups herself.

"We've never seen anything as dramatic as this in my 20 years in the field," Trina said.

Beginning the second half of the year with no money and very little remaining credit, she knows she'll have to lay off even more staff. But every recourse she can think of only keeps the Latino Treatment Center's three locations operational through mid-August.

"I won't survive another six months," she said.

Erik Johnson, vice president of development for Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley, said one of the ways his agency was most hurt by the budget crisis was in the permanent cutting of $200,000 of capital funding earmarked for a new roof and ventilation system.

"In our minds, that's as important as services," Johnson said. "We have to have a safe environment."

He said it's unclear whether Thursday's action would restore any such capital funding, but did see it as a good first step on the legislature's part.

Higher education will be sent $1 billion under the plan, with about $150 million covering college grants that have gone unpaid for many financially needy students. Community colleges will get about $114 million, while the state's public universities will get about $655 million.

Harper College spokeswoman Kim Pohl called the move "an important first step. We look forward to continued cooperation that sets the stage for higher education to be fully funded for the entire year."

Meanwhile, Carl La Mell, president of Arlington Heights-based Clearbrook, said the vote will have a "very positive impact throughout the state.

"It's almost criminal to me that they haven't been paid in 12 months," La Mell said.

Clearbrook, which serves people with developmental disabilities, benefited from a class-action lawsuit that ensured Medicaid recipients were paid by the state during the year without a budget, La Mell said. While lauding the stopgap agreement, he said Clearbrook actually could get paid at a slower rate now.

Funding for other social agencies has fallen away, including Des Plaines-based Lutheran Social Services, which early this year cut 750 jobs and programs for vulnerable people.

A United Way survey suggests more than 1 million people lost services as a result of the state's failure to pass a budget.

Thousands of financially needy suburban students have not received their Monetary Award Program grants in the past year. Some community colleges and universities floated the amount in the hope Illinois eventually would pay, but others did not.

It is still unclear who will be getting checks when, and how state Comptroller Leslie Munger's office will prioritize payments.

The state is financing some of the stopgap plan by taking money from reserves from a variety of other state funds. Rauner's office borrowed about $455 million from those funds last year. The deal contains an agreement that that amount would be forgiven, and the funds do not have to be reimbursed by the state.

While praising Thursday's votes as one of the first acts of bipartisan compromise in a politically divided state, lawmakers were also quick to note that work lies ahead on approving a complete budget plan.

"It's the best we can achieve at this juncture," Republican state Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove said.

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