Social service agencies at the breaking point

Stress need for overdue state money

  • Robin Hooper, left, of Woodridge holds onto a protest sign and chants with other supporters of the Ray Graham Association in a courtyard outside the DuPage County courthouse on June 19, 2009.

    Robin Hooper, left, of Woodridge holds onto a protest sign and chants with other supporters of the Ray Graham Association in a courtyard outside the DuPage County courthouse on June 19, 2009. Daily Herald file photo

Published: 12/30/2009 12:00 AM

It's the season of giving, but many cash-strapped social service agencies across the suburbs are hoping it will be the season of getting where overdue state payments are concerned.

By design, the budget slapped together earlier this year in the General Assembly planned to address the state's own cash shortfalls by delaying those payments. It's now at a stage where many agencies are saying that they are at the breaking point - if they're not already totally broke.

"They haven't paid us for some programs since July," said Carl La Mell, president of Arlington Heights-based Clearbrook, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities across the Chicago area. "So that's over $5 million."

After making necessary cuts early in the year, many agencies have found a way to muddle through with trickling state payments.

"As long as we can keep some money coming in, and keep our fundraisers somewhat in line, and borrow money, we'll be OK," La Mell said. "It's really about borrowing money and not paying vendors. Obviously, our vendors aren't happy."

Not all can be pushed off, however. "It's hard to go to Jewel and say, 'I'll get you the money next week,'" La Mell added.

As the CEO of the Ray Graham Association, which also serves people with developmental disabilities, Cathy Ficker Terrill aims to keep everything as normal as possible for her staff and clients.

Since Illinois made major budget cuts to state-funded social service agencies last July, Downers Grove-based Ray Graham has reduced staff and spent conservatively.

"At any given time, the state owes us $5 million for services rendered, but not reimbursed," Terrill said. "It's been very difficult. But it is my job to advocate and my staff's job to continue providing quality services and support, so people can have a good Christmas."

Gretchen Vapnar, executive director of the Community Crisis Center in Elgin, which operates a food bank and serves victims of domestic abuse throughout the Fox Valley, said that the state still owes $100,000 for the center's domestic violence services.

While the center's overall budget is $2.1 million, the lack of funding has hurt, but the gap has been bridged by cash and in-kind donations from the public and fundraisers, Vapnar said.

"We're managing, again, by the generosity of our community," she said.

If the state doesn't send money soon, Vapnar said she could be forced to resort to layoffs by February.

"We're trying to do what we can do, but without support from the state we'll be back in a grave situation," she said. "It's not just us. Everyone's in trouble. I don't know anyone who is doing well."

Some are faring worse than others, however. The Lake Villa-based Kids Hope United serves 15,000 children and families in four states. The nonprofit agency provides prevention, intervention, counseling and community-based programs for vulnerable families.

Mark McHugh, executive director of Kids Hope, said the state's fiscal woes have created confusion and uncertainty for his agency.

"The beginning of our fiscal year was awful. The state was initially talking about 50 percent cuts in funding, but the information would change day to day," McHugh said. "We would do and redo our budget trying to align it with their projections."

More than 70 percent of Kids Hope's $30 million budget is funded by the state. Facing a possible 50 percent cut, Kids Hope officials were forced to lay off 19 of its 450 employees, only to rehire them three weeks later after learning the cuts wouldn't be as deep as predicted. Five of those layoffs were permanent, however.

The on-again, off-again experience was hard on the employees. "Think of how that uncertainty affects people," McHugh said.

Delayed state payments are also complicating the programs Kids Hope offers, McHugh said.

"We've had to close cases early, before they were completed," he said. "The state is six months behind in their payments to us. They owe us $750,000 at this point," he said. "What would happen if you were six months behind on your car payment or light bill?"

McHugh said that his organization has been able to weather the storm, but he's concerned for the smaller agencies that can't float for long without cash from Springfield.

"We are trying to maintain the quality services we've always had in the face of the difficulties," he said. "But the smaller organizations will be hit especially hard. The legislators need to commit to solving this problem. I don't see that happening yet."

In the grand scheme of things, $30,000 doesn't sound like that much. Yet it's enough to make a difference at the Batavia-based Elderday Center, which watches about 40 seniors a day from the Tri-Cities, Sugar Grove and Elburn area while their spouses or kids are at work.

"We're a small agency. It's about a tenth of our budget. It's very difficult," said Executive Director Micki Miller.

The center has already cut costs, but if state money doesn't come by 2010, Miller will be forced to cut hours for its 16 part-time workers instead of laying people off.

The center also might have to abandon its prided ratio of one caregiver for every four seniors.

"We'll have to go to the state limits then; we'll go to a 1-to-6 ratio," Miller said. "We're definitely having some struggles."

Although the July funding cuts were reinstated, other state budget reductions afterward affected Ray Graham. Terrill said the same cuts made last summer may happen again in early 2010. That would mean that 900 families would lose services like residential programs, respite care and service dogs. So Ray Graham is collaborating with local legislators to secure funding for its programs.

"They are working on our behalf," she said.

It's all a drain on agencies already fighting to stretch dollars. "It has an effect on services long-term," La Mell said, "because we have to borrow money, which creates all sorts of other problems as interest rates are going up." And banks, he said, are not enthusiastic in the current financial environment about lending money against state IOUs.

For now, however, the issue remains a political football. Gov. Pat Quinn has suggested that the state borrow an additional $500 million to see it through, but his opponent in the Democratic primary, Comptroller Dan Hynes, has balked at that plan.

With the end of 2009 approaching, the state could soon fall even more in arrears. La Mell said Clearbrook will be owed an additional $2 million.

"Hopefully," he said, "we'll get something before the end of the year."

• Daily Herald staff writers Elisabeth Mistretta, Vincent Pierri, Harry Hitzeman and Madhu Krishnamurthy contributed to this report.