Coalition of social services sues Rauner, staff over unpaid contracts

Robin Opsahl, City Editor

A coalition of 64 Illinois social services are suing Gov. Bruce Rauner and members of his administration for the more than $100 million Illinois owes agencies for work contracted by the state and left unpaid during the budget crisis.

Pay Now Illinois, a collective of human and social services agencies and companies, filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the Cook County Circuit Court. The suit claims Rauner and his staff have acted illegally by continuing to enforce the contracts with the organizations without paying them, and that his veto of appropriation bills in June 2015 was an illegal interference with their constitutional right to a legal correction for the issue.

“This suit is about upholding a contract and paying your bills, basic good business practices,”
said Pay Now coalition chair Andrea Durbin in a news release. “We are doing our part. We expect the state to do the same.”

Lisabeth Weiner of Lisabeth Weiner Consultants, a consultant for Pay Now, said the social services in the suit have been operating without payment through their contracts for more than 300 days. Although the agencies have tried to come up with solutions to meet their obligations without payment through their contracts, Weiner said, the services involved are struggling to be able to pay staff, rent and other financial obligations — in some cases, laying off staff or closing their doors altogether.

“How do you continue to work when you’re not being paid? Essentially these agencies have become accreditors to the state,” Weiner said. “They are getting their cake, because the social services are being fulfilled, and they’re eating it too, because they aren’t paying for it.”

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said in a statement that the lawsuit was just frustration with the state budget crisis. Efforts to give social services emergency funding, like the attempted last-minute addition to the higher education emergency funding bill, have not passed.

“While we understand that frustration is driving many worthwhile organizations to seek solutions anywhere, including the courts, the only solution is for the General Assembly to pass a balanced, reform-oriented budget as soon as possible,” Kelly said in the statement.

Mary Ellen Poole, the executive director of Housing Options in Evanston, a nonprofit supporting adults with mental illness, said although her organization was not one of the services involved in filing the lawsuit, Housing Options has been gravely impacted by the budget crisis.

Housing Options currently has two contracts with the state government, neither of which have been honored, she said. She said neither of the contracts had been paid since December, and that the state had continually said it would pay them until two weeks ago when the organization was informed it would not receive the funding.

Every month moving forward without the state paying its contracts, the nonprofit loses $25,000 a month, Poole said. For organizations like Housing Options, which works on affordable housing and case management for people with chronic mental illnesses, the lack of funding by the state means the organization is less able to support the people in need of their services.

“These are real human lives, not just numbers on a page,” Poole said. “Every number you read is a human life that is impacted, a very sick individual that has nowhere else to go. It’s really heartbreaking.”

Because of uncertainty for public funding in the future, services are looking to private support to remain open and provide services for people in need. Poole said organizations’ futures are up to the community to continue to keep their doors open.

“People are dying because of a lack of social services already, and that hasn’t changed anything,” she said. “This is a wakeup call that we cannot depend on the state to help fund our agencies.”

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