Social services brace for more uncertainty as key deadline looms

Many “key dates” have come and gone in the past year for struggling suburban social service agencies, but now their eyes are fixed on one that is especially ominous: June 30.

On that date, groups that care for the elderly, at-risk youths and victims of domestic violence face adversity from two directions.

From one, contracts they've signed to do business with the troubled state end then, and some agencies worry they'll never get paid for work they've already done under those 2016 contracts. From the other, particularly for groups serving seniors, federal money that has kept them afloat during a year of crisis is set to expire.

“It hasn't been decided yet whether the state will completely, permanently welsh on these contracts,” said John Bouman, a lawyer and president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. “With the lawsuit, you eliminate almost all of that outside chance of not getting paid.”

Agencies have sued to get their payments, just as lottery winners did successfully last year to get their payouts, but they know the courts can be as unpredictable as Democrat and Republican legislators locked in a budget battle are unreliable. They are asking the court to guarantee payment from the state for the more than $130 million in work they've already done in 2016.

“We've been told: 'They'll resolve this by Labor Day; they'll resolve this in the veto session; they'll resolve this after the (candidate) filing session in December,'” said Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth, one of the groups leading the lawsuit. “It became clear to us that we cannot rely on the political process to protect us in this.”

Still, lawmakers could pass a stopgap budget before June 30 or even approve a plan after that to make the payments retroactively.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner blames Democrats for the mess, but some point out that a $700 million, bipartisan plan to fund social services passed both the Democrat-controlled Illinois House and Senate in early May.

“While we understand that frustration is driving many worthwhile organizations to seek solutions anywhere, including the courts, the General Assembly failed to pass a balanced reform-oriented budget for the second year in a row,” said Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly. “The stopgap budget proposed by the GOP leaders and supported by the governor would help provide relief to these agencies.”

Yet, as Rauner travels the state pushing his proposal, the spending plan that would get at least some money for this fiscal year to social service groups sits on his desk.

“(Signing it) is just common sense and it just needs to be done,” said Marilyn Krolak, director of the DuPage Senior Citizen Council.

The council has continued providing meals to seniors with money from the federal government and some state money mandated by a court order.

But the authorization for federal dollars is set to expire at the end of June.

Jon Lavin, director of Age Options in Oak Park, worries that without some action before then, organizations could struggle to continue without the federal funds after a year of going without much of their state funding.

“As important as getting state dollars is, I've heard from a couple state agencies, if they don't continue to get federal dollars, they'll close,” he said.

Lawyers with Comptroller Leslie Munger's office are looking into the issue. “We're in uncharted waters,” spokesman Rich Carter said.

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