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Concerns mount as budget deadline nears

By Pete Spitler
Posted on 12/12/2016, 10:57 AM

For the local entities that endured the debilitating budget impasse earlier this year, the current talks seem like more of the same rhetoric.

The deadline for the state"s "stopgap" budget is Jan. 1 and two of the state"s political leaders - House Speaker Michael Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner - can"t even agree on a way forward in negotiations.

"There are obviously concerns that it could turn into what it did last year and I"ve already relayed that to our state representatives," said Chester Mayor Tom Page, who said he was going to wait until the new state assembly was seated next month before assessing the situation. "I can"t say I"m overly optimistic right now.

"All we can do is cross our fingers."

The previous budget impasse ended up costing the City of Chester $1.7 million in overdue utility (water, sewer and natural gas) payments to state facilities, leaving the city essentially funding those facilities.

Page flirted with the idea of shutting off the water to the maximum-security Menard Correctional Center - a decision he previously said would not require city council approval - due to nonpayment, but ultimately decided against it.

He was asked last week if that option would be explored again if another budget impasse occurs.

"They"ll be those who will probably think I should be shutting them off and I certainly, again, don"t want to risk our state facilities being evacuated and the residents not being brought back," Page said, noting the large number of city residents who are employed at the state facilities in question. "I have to be very, very careful."

City alderwoman Nancy Crossland, in a previous city council meeting, has expressed her hopes that if another budget impasse occurs, the city would be more proactive and not wait around for payment.

Once the stopgap budget was approved in an last-minute deal in June, Page said the state began repaying its debt to the city in chunks.

"The state is five months behind," he said. "The norm was always three months and that was always expected.

"Even if the norm was five months, we could live with that."

On Dec. 2, Madigan released a statement with a list of topics to be discussed if budget talks were to continue - including Rauner"s veto of the $215 million Chicago Public Schools pension bailout (Senate Bill 2822), "a full recounting of all taxpayer-funding giveaways handed out to businesses since Governor Rauner took office," the contract impasse with AFSCME and "Memorandums of Understanding" for future and past funding agreed to by Rauner.

Four days later, the Rauner administration - in a statement attributable to spokeswoman Catherine Kelly - accused Madigan of "stalling" to force a crisis.

"The Speaker refused to put forward a budget proposal and refused to commit to passing any budget whatsoever after December 31," Kelly said on Dec. 6. "Republicans will not consider revenue without reform. Only Speaker Madigan has proposed raising the income tax.

"As the Speaker stalls to force a crisis, we call on the majority to pass term limits and a permanent property tax freeze before any consideration of Speaker Madigan"s stopgap spending plan."

The Senate Democrats, who have the majority, voted to override Rauner"s veto of the CPS bailout, but the House was not able to vote on it before legislators adjourned until Jan. 9, leaving a cliffhanger for the upcoming legislative session.

"The payments for the utilities is my concern right now," Page said. "We"re status quo and waiting to see right now."

In Steeleville, Mayor Bob Sutton said his concern was Rauner"s proposal to freeze property taxes, which helps fund public schools, cities, library districts, fire districts and other entities.

"Property taxes generally get bumped about 4 percent or whatever a year," he said. "If you lose that two years, you"ve lost 8 percent up to 10 percent that you"re never going to get back.

"And it compounds over the years, so it really affects small towns."

Sutton said village leadership has been trying to figure out scenarios of what might happen if another budget impasse occurs.

"I was told the (property tax) freeze was going to happen," said Sutton, when asked if he had spoken with any legislators about the state budget. "And that was before the election. So you never know."

Another unfortunate victim of last year"s budget impasse were the Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council (WEEOC) senior sites.

WEEOC"s sites in Chester and Red Bud were closed for three weeks in August after running out of money. WEEOC receives both federal and state funding, but the state can"t distribute the federal money (referred to as "pass-through" funding) without a budget or special legislation.

"Some of our housing programs and our senior sites have not been funded for the full year," said WEEOC Executive Director Paulette Hamlin in an interview with the Herald Tribune on Monday. "I"m not 100 percent sure what"s going to happen with that.

"I haven"t gotten any specifics from the area agencies yet."

Hamlin noted that since August, the senior sites have been operating for four days a week to save money.

"We"re keeping our fingers crossed and we"re watching the news like everybody else," Hamlin said.

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