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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2005 02:01 pm

Unhealthy alliances

If you follow the money, you will find that the health-department merger really was about patronage and politics

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You might be surprised to learn how much Andy Van Meter cares about your health. He’s so concerned about protecting you from salmonella and meningitis and diseases borne by fruit flies that he dug deep in his pocket and spent $14,300 of his own money just to ensure that every lousy mosquito in Sangamon County will face one efficiently unified public health department, instead of two.

Yes, I’m talking about the “health department merger” again — that shaggy dog issue that crops up whenever a Republican eyes a possible opening. The latest round began in December, when Springfield City Council member Frank Kunz (a Democrat) told some Republican buddies that he would vote to let the Sangamon County Health Department take over the Springfield Department of Health if they could prove it would make good financial sense.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re sick of the whole health department debate, because the lead players insist their only interest in such a merger is the prospect of building a better public health agency — one that could provide more services for less money. The fact that control over all those jobs would shift from Democrats to Republicans is just a coincidence, they say.

But campaign finance disclosure forms published online earlier this week show that when the question was put on the ballot in non-binding referendum in April, Republicans spent about $20,000 wooing voters to their side. Democrats, by contrast, apparently spent about $8,000. The Republicans, er, I mean the pro-merger side, narrowly won, but at a price of $1.66 per vote.

Most of that money came from Van Meter, chairman of the Sangamon County Board. In the days leading up to the vote, he donated $500 each to a trio of Republican council members — Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards, Ward 7’s Judy Yeager, and Ward 10’s Bruce Strom. (After the referendum passed, he gave another $300 to County Board member John Fulgenzi, also a Republican.)

On April 13, about a week after the vote, he gave $12,000 to the Sangamon County Republican Foundation, which in turn transferred $10,000 to the Sangamon County Republican Central Committee. That committee then reimbursed Edwards $5,740, Yeager $4,236, and Strom $1,250 — mostly for TV ads.

Van Meter says he can’t remember how much he gave to the Republican foundation, although he admits it was a significant amount.

“I definitely donated substantially to the referendum, no question,” he says.

But Irv Smith, chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Party, has no problem confirming that Van Meter gave $12,000 to the party.

“I backed it up and took it out of the foundation,” Smith says. “Whatever he sent, we spent. We paid the bills.”

Smith himself stayed out of the mix at the request of other Republicans who didn’t want the party’s aroma to taint the debate. “They didn’t want me in because I was too political,” Smith says.

He claims Democrats poured as much money into the vote as Republicans did, although he can’t pinpoint expenditures. Few of the reports filed with the State Board of Elections specify that funds were spent to promote the merger; clues can be found in the dates and types of expenses listed.

Sangamon County Democratic Party chairman Tim Timoney bought yard signs and radio ads under his Friends of the Party organization. Aldermen Chuck Redpath and Tom Selinger spent some campaign funds on fliers and postage promoting the merger as well as Democratic candidates for Capital Township posts — all of which came to about $8,000.

The biggest expenditure by any Democrat was $13,000 spent by Mayor Tim Davlin on March 21, days before the April 5 election. That money funded a poll that gauged voter opinion on a variety of subjects, including the merger.

To Kunz, these figures confirm what he suspected throughout the campaign — that the question of how to serve the health needs of the community had been swept away in a tsunami of political maneuvering. And as the Democrat who prompted this round of debate — by pledging to cross party lines and vote for the merger if convinced it would lead to a better health care system — Kunz was punished by his party.

“What upsets me the most about this is I just tried to do the right thing and be honest,” Kunz says. “The Democrats got pissed off because they said I was giving away jobs.”

For now, nothing has changed. Even though the mayor and some aldermen pledged to carry out the wishes of the referendum voters, the merger is stalled in a legal struggle between the city and county concerning old tax revenues. And despite new tangible evidence that Van Meter spent thousands to influence the vote, he continues to insist the merger proposal is not about jobs but rather about those fruit flies, salmonella, and meningitis.

“It’s sad if this issue becomes all politics, all about money spent, which obscures the fundamental issue of what’s right for our community,” Van Meter says.

I couldn’t agree more.

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