Evanston social services cope with Illinois budget stalemate

Julia Jacobs, City Editor

Illinois Budget Crisis

After nearly three months without a state budget, the Illinois government is forecasting a growing pile of unpaid bills that will impact the ability of human services agencies to deliver care to vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly.

There have been a variety of legal and legislative avenues keeping the state government running without a budget since July 1 — including court orders, consent decrees and continuing appropriations freeing funds to pay about 90 percent of the state’s bills, Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger said at a press conference earlier this month. However, without an agreement between the General Assembly and Gov. Bruce Rauner, the backlog of bills will exceed $8.5 billion by the end of December, Munger said.

Without state payments, many social services agencies in the state will end up depleting their cash reserves by the end of the year, said Jack Kaplan, director of public policy and advocacy at United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. As a result, those agencies are facing cuts to staff and services, Kaplan said.

“Starting in September and October, you’re really starting to see a threat to the capacity of a lot of providers to operate at the same level they have been,” he said.

In a survey administered to social service providers in mid-July by UWMC, a nonprofit that provides financial support for local organizations, one third of more than 400 respondents reported that they had already cut the number of clients they serve.

In Evanston, the impact of the state budget crisis on human services providers depends largely on the portion of the organization’s own budget that is supported by the state. Youth and Opportunity United, which receives 3 percent of its funding from the state, has been able to avoid services reductions entirely, said YOU’s executive director Seth Green. But Shore Community Services — which is 70 percent state-funded — has been at risk of major programming cuts, said Johanna Garsenstein, the organization’s director of administrative services.

During the past few months, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz has been working to secure Evanston’s own financial future by introducing remedies such as fee increases for residents and a furlough day for city employees. Since the beginning of July, Bobkiewicz said Evanston human services providers have sought alternatives to replace missing state funds through private donors and lines of credit.

“They have begged, borrowed and done what they’ve needed to do to keep their doors open,” Bobkiewicz said. “My sense is that their ability to do that is coming to an end.”

In the past few months, Andrea Densham, executive director of Childcare Network of Evanston, said she has seen a ripple effect of eligibility cuts to the state’s Child Care Assistance Program. While CCAP used to be available to families living up to 185 percent above the poverty line, Rauner enacted a change on July 1 limiting eligibility to families 50 percent below poverty.

Densham said she has heard stories of children being dropped off the local library or at a house with too many children for caretakers to handle. One of CNE’s clients, a previously homeless single father, had to choose between keeping his new job or remaining in the CCAP program, she said.

“I have a staff of five right now that are just on the phone constantly talking to families who’ve been denied childcare assistance and are looking for some sort of help,” Densham said. “The rug is just getting pulled out from under them, and it’s having devastating impacts.”

Child Care Center of Evanston also works with clients in the state’s CCAP program and an administrator said they have had to deny more new clients in recent months as well.

“We’ve had to turn families with a new baby away because they don’t meet the new eligibility requirements,” said Lindsay Percival, the organization’s executive director. “I worry about what’s happening to these children.”

Although the Child Care Center received its first check from the state for August, Percival said the organization is maintaining a freeze on wages and has delayed major repairs scheduled at the end of the summer because of uncertainty over whether future payments would come through.

After Munger, the state comptroller, announced Wednesday that she will soon begin making payments to Early Intervention providers, which serve developmentally disabled infants and toddlers, Percival said the center can begin paying its therapists who previously worked without compensation.

Kaplan, UWMC’s public policy director, said payments to social services providers will only be made after the state pays the bills at the “top of the heap” for priorities such as pensions and Medicaid. As the backlog of bills piles higher, it will become even more difficult to make those discretionary payments, he said.

Up until last week, the only payments Shore Community Services had received from the state were federal Medicaid dollars, said Garsenstein, the organization’s director of administrative services. However, on Friday, the organization celebrated the delivery of nearly $300,000 directly from the state for fiscal year 2016, she said. Additionally, Shore recently lifted its hiring freeze, which the organization enacted in preparation for potentially paralyzing state cuts.

“It’s been a really uncertain summer, but things are starting to slowly resolve, we hope,” she said.

Although Childcare Network of Evanston has received recent influxes of federal and private money allowing it to stay focused on its mission, state funds still play an integral role, said Densham, the organization’s executive director. Down in Springfield, she said she hopes politicians will help reassert the need for a strong government system assisting the state’s most vulnerable populations.

“We, as the Childcare Network, are happy to step in and provide a bit of a safety net in response to the changes and try to help as much as we can,” Densham said. “But we can’t solve a state budget crisis, and we can’t do it alone.”

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