This story is the latest installment in a joint initiative by The Associated Press and Associated Press Media Editors on the fiscal crisis facing U.S. states and cities, how state and local governments are dealing with severe budget cuts, and how American lives will change because of it.
CHICAGO (AP) — When the owner of a southern Illinois child care center didn’t get the state funding he was promised on time and faced laying off employees and cutting service to low-income children, he borrowed money from family members to get by.
When a suburban Chicago center helping disabled people live independently didn’t get its state money quickly, employees waited three months for a paycheck so clients wouldn’t feel the pinch.
And when an Elgin domestic abuse program was left stacks of unpaid bills and no sign of when the money would come from the state, workers took four weeks of unpaid furlough days, especially difficult for entry level employees earning $25,000 a year.
They are among the thousands of community groups and charities making up Illinois’ system for providing human services: the state contracts out the work and agrees to make reimbursements. But as Illinois’ budget crisis worsens and the state lags further behind in paying bills, those that serve the state’s neediest are forced to make dire decisions and at-times heroic sacrifices to pick up the slack.
“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.
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 analysis of state data by The Associated Press 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.
DHS declined to make directors available for an AP interview. In a statement the agency said late payments are “of concern, but vendors have generally been patient and understanding during these tough economic times … the department’s delivery of direct services have not been impacted to date.”
Groups statewide disagreed, especially at a time when the need is increasing. More than 14 percent of Illinois’ population lives in poverty, the highest rate since 1992.
“The people who need services are getting less, which leaves a greater and greater amount of unmet need,” said Gina Guillemette, a committee member of the umbrella group, Illinois Partners for Human Service. “It’s a bare bones approach in services.”
The West Central Center for Independent Living in Quincy, which helps disabled people live independently, is owed three months of bills. But since it can’t get a line of credit, the center laid off employees and now serves 160 people annually, 40 less than years past.
“For the past couple of years you’re just fighting to keep your head above water,” said Glenda Farkas, the center’s executive director.
Illinois officials approved a budget this year that, despite an income tax increase, continues to cut some key services for people who are struggling.
Addiction treatment, job training, child welfare — all will get less money. In all, DHS is losing 9.9 percent of its money. Gov. Pat Quinn is also planning to close five institutions for people with mental disabilities and illnesses, cutting about 1,900 state jobs. The budget allows the backlog of unpaid bills to continue into next year.
At Southwest Disabilities Services in suburban Chicago, which helps the disabled into independent housing, among other things, all of its $2.5 million budget comes from Illinois. Since lines of credit have been exhausted, workers agreed to wait up to three months for a paycheck.
The same circumstance led the owner of Small World Child Development Center in Marion — which serves around 115 children — to go to family for a loan. Around 70 percent of its budget comes from state money, said center director Rachel Soldner.
“It’s important that the state understands when you say you’re going to fund a program, you fund the program and you fund it every month like you’re supposed to, instead of leaving everybody in limbo,” she said.
For many groups that means tough decisions.
The South East Alcohol and Drug Abuse Center in Chicago is owed $54,000 by the state and has faced cuts, leading to the end of a program for adolescents battling addiction.
“I sweat payroll every other week,” said executive director Greg Zyvert. “I have to play God, in this bill gets paid, that bill doesn’t.”
He says they’ve considered closing altogether.
The unpaid bills are trickling down to services. Two case managers who recently left the Chicago-based Inspiration Corporation — which has helped more than 200 people get off the streets — saying they couldn’t work there with such a shaky financial situation. That meant the remaining managers more than doubled their case loads.
It’s something that 23-year-old Cafonze Hibbler, his wife and three children have noticed. The organization helped his family get housing after a fire displaced them. But now that Hibbler is working on his GED and applying for jobs, he said he can’t get as much time with his case manager as he needs.
Some groups report that hounding state legislators and writing letters of hardship when times are dire seems to help, others look to lobby politicians and make repeated phone calls.
One of the state’s largest providers, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, with an $118 million operating budget, is owed nearly $10 million and borrows from an endowment, a bank and pays its own vendors late, but CEO the Rev. Denver Bitner said being in constant contact is the only effective thing.
“We have consistently had a letter of hardship, that’s what you have to do. That’s the only way you’ll be paid,” he said. “I burned a lot of miles between here and Springfield.”
The Family Service & Community Mental Health Center for McHenry County, which has served thousands of northern Illinois families, got an advance from a county board to cover bills, in addition to 3 percent pay cuts in the last fiscal year, unpaid furlough days and fewer holidays.
The agency is owed almost $500,000.
“They’ve had to step in where the state has stepped away,” said CEO Lori Nelson. “It’s unconscionable.”
To explore a searchable database of the Illinois government’s unpaid bills from Sept. 8, go to http://billpay.qconline.com
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen