The city of Chester will send a letter of hardship to the Illinois comptroller's office, calling on the state to make a dent in the $1 million it owes for utilities consumed by the Menard maximum and medium security prisons.
Mayor Tom Page said a representative of Comptroller Susana Mendoza's office met with him in Chester recently, and Page is hopeful it means the city will soon get another payment toward the backlog of water, sewer and gas bills the Menard Correctional Center has amassed.
Page, however, has no illusion the state will settle the full account anytime soon.
"I expect they'll release some money in four to six weeks, I have no idea how much," he said recently. "But by the time they do that, we'll have sent them another bill."
Menard, the largest Department of Corrections facility in Illinois, is a big user of utilities. So big, the city is having to transfer money earmarked for other water and sewer projects into the fund to pay its own vendors and keep its lines in good working order.
Chester City Clerk Bethany Berner said the state quit paying for Menard's water and sewer services in February 2017, nearly a year ago.
Last spring, the DOC debt for Menard had ballooned to $1.7 million, and Chester's water and sewer fund was completely dry. The city had to transfer money from unrelated funds into water and sewer just to keep it going, she said.
Page said it was one thing when the state didn't have a budget for two years. But now the money is flowing again, and the state has pledged to pay the oldest bills first.
Page was pleased that a representative of the comptroller's office came to Chester to discuss the backlog, hoping it shows the office is dedicated to helping Chester.
"It was nice to have someone come here," he said, adding it was the first time anyone from the comptroller's office came to Chester.
Abdon Pallasch, director of communications for the Illinois Comptroller, said right now the comptroller's office is paying bills from January and February of 2017.
The $17 billion that was owed at the height of the state's two-year budget battle has been knocked down to about $9 billion, he said.
Still, "Vendors all over the state are owed," Pallasch said. As part of the budget passed over Gov. Rauner's veto, the state borrowed $6 billion to pay down the oldest bills and the highest accruing bills, as well as the bills that had match federal funds, he added.
A letter of hardship could well help Chester move forward on the list of payments, Pallasch said, especially if it shows a lack of funds is causing real distress to a municipality.
According to Berner, the city's last DOC payment came in October.
"We never know what they are going to send," she said, adding that sometimes the payment is for a few months of service and sometimes just a month's worth.
What's odd, is that the Chester Mental Health Center, also a state facility, is completely paid up on utility bills, Berner said. The comptroller's office disburses money for both, so why one institution is paid up and another one in arrears is unclear, she said.
Prior to the Illinois budget crisis, payments from the state were normally three months behind.
"Now they are almost a year behind in water and sewer and six months behind on everything else," Berner said.
Pallasch was checking on the particulars of the Chester payments, but did not get the details before press time.