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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015 12:11 am

The high cost of budget cuts

When Illinois slashes social services, the vulnerable suffer

A young man uses the Teen Lounge at the Boys and Girls Club in Springfield, which provides a safe, positive environment for children and teenagers after school.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

In August 2014, a young, African-American student in his junior year at Lanphier High School was caught carrying a gun at school. The student, whose name is being withheld because he is a minor, wasn’t trying to cause trouble. He was trying to protect himself.

The student had been targeted since his freshman year by a gang wanting him to join them. Gang members harassed him constantly and even shot at him once, prompting him to begin carrying a gun himself. After he was caught with the gun, he spent about six months in the juvenile detention center.

Now, that same student is on track to graduate from Lanphier in December and attend a vocational training school. The difference was the Springfield-based Boys and Girls Club of Central Illinois, which provides mentorship and a positive environment for teens after school. The student has gone to the Boys and Girls Club every day since his release.

“If I wasn’t here, and I was on house arrest, to tell you the truth, I’d probably see myself back in the juvenile center,” the student said. “I’d probably have the same mindset that it’s too dangerous out there on the street and I have to grab another gun. … This is helpful for me. It’s keeping me out of trouble.”

The Boys and Girls Club is one of hundreds of organizations around the state facing funding delays because of Illinois’ ongoing budget impasse and an overall funding cut because of the state’s fiscal crisis. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly want drastically different versions of the budget passed, but the negotiations have stalled because of a fundamental disagreement on other issues. Meanwhile, the organizations that provide critical social services are preparing for the worst. Even once a budget is finally in place and money starts flowing to service providers once more, many of those groups which depend on the state will see their budgets slashed. That means the services they provide will be dialed back or cut altogether, which will have devastating consequences for those in need and for society as a whole.

In mid-July, the statewide United Way of Illinois surveyed more than 400 social service agencies dealing with housing, child care, mental health and other issues about their reliance on state funding and where the budget crisis leaves them.

“It’s almost unprecedented that the United Way has had to conduct such a survey,” said John Kelker, executive director of the United Way of Central Illinois, the Springfield branch of United Way. “In just a week’s time, 400 agencies from across the state wanted to contribute information because they realized what was staring them in the face.”

The results are alarming: 70 percent of the agencies surveyed have only enough funds on hand to operate for three months or less without state assistance. After that, many will have to close, cut programs or start borrowing money. Of the agencies with small cash reserves, 19 percent will deplete their funding by the end of this month. About 34 percent of agencies surveyed have already cut back on programs, and 24 percent have already begun borrowing money, which comes with hefty interest payments that further squeeze already tight agency budgets.

“It’s really not even about the agencies,” Kelker said. “It’s about their clients, the moms and dads and children, those with mental health issues and so on. I don’t think legislators understand the impact of this situation.”


Child care

Illinois Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger talks to Sparc clients while touring the facility’s dog biscuit workshop.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Demara Albert is a single mother with three children who works for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Her two sons, ages 11 and 12, and her daughter, age 10, go to the Boys and Girls Club in Springfield each weekday after school. There, the kids receive tutoring, learn new skills, play sports and more.

“It’s a safe haven for the children,” Albert said.

While the state budget is in limbo, the Boys and Girls Club hasn’t been getting the funding it needs to continue providing mentorship and supervision for the 400 children and teens the organization usually serves through the state’s Teen Reach program. Without that service, Albert says, her kids would be in danger. Although they live in a safe neighborhood, Albert says they’re not quite old enough to be left on their own.

“I would have to leave them at home,” she said. “I don’t get the time off I would need to leave work early every day. They would be at home alone for an hour or two every day.”

Although a judge has ordered that state employees like Albert can be paid even without a state budget in place, Albert still worries that her paychecks may suddenly stop coming.

“It’s like they’re setting me back,” Albert said. “I came from using government assistance, and they’re trying to make me go back to that. This is hurting parents who want to get out there and work.”

Bill Legge, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club in Springfield, says the organization is faced with finding private dollars or closing its doors. The Boys and Girls Club provides tutoring, mentoring, basic life skills, athletics programs, art classes, a computer lab, a music studio and dinner every night.

“We try to utilize everything we can to get them through the doors, but that only happens if we’ve got the funding to offer things they want to do,” Legge said.

Stories like that of Demara Albert or the student from Lanphier are common among the Boys and Girls Club’s clients, many who would otherwise be vulnerable to violence, hunger, substance abuse and other dangers. Boys and Girls Clubs across the state provide services for 8,000 children, more than half of the 15,000 children in the state’s Teen Reach program.

“One way or another, we’re going to figure out how to be here,” Legge said. “But, there’s a difference between just being here and truly being impactful. It hurts. It really hurts.”

Legge proudly shows off the recently renovated Boys and Girls Club facility that includes a modern gym, computer lab, kitchen, classrooms and teen lounge, but his voice takes on a somber tone when discussing the prospect that those rooms may not see any use.

“It’s really disheartening that, after you’ve turned this place into a world-class facility, the state cuts your funding, and you’re left with an amazing space but no funding to run the program,” he said.


Mental health

Ruta Kulys is director of the Community Support Network, a “psychosocial rehabilitation program” in Springfield which offers case management for people with a mental illness. CSN is part of the Department of Psychiatry at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield. Kulys says her organization’s clients tend to be people who go to the mental hospital for treatment, improve, get discharged and then relapse.

CSN seeks to stop that cycle by providing daily contact and support that enables clients to live independently. For example, CSN specialists check every day to make sure patients are taking their medications. Nurses also accompany clients to medical appointments, advocating for clients and helping them understand what’s happening with their cases. Clients receive help with grocery shopping, laundry, transportation and finding work or housing. If clients start to slip back into illness, Kulys says, CSN’s workers will notice and take early action.

“When people get that kind of care, they get better, and many of them need less and less help over time,” Kulys said. “They can get help, recover, have meaningful relationships and lead productive lives.”

Like many other agencies in Illinois, CSN is facing a loss of state funding, jeopardizing its services. Dr. Stephen Soltys, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at SIU School of Medicine, says his department stands to lose $213,000 in state funding, the majority of which funds the Community Support Network. He says CSN may be able to compensate for the loss by accepting several more clients whose treatment is covered by Medicaid, but that strategy isn’t a sure bet.

Without the support CSN provides, Kulys says, patients will wind up back in the mental hospital, in prison or homeless.

“For a lot of our clients, it would be devastating,” she said, adding that the public often thinks of people with mental illness as dangerous.

“The truth is that population is very vulnerable,” she said. “We have to protect them from being taken advantage of.”

A similar situation is playing out at Mental Health Centers of Central Illinois. Jan Gambach, president of MHCCI and a board member for Illinois Partners for Human Services, says her organization is waiting on $4 million in state grants thanks to the budget stalemate, and already they’ve lost $1 million in related grants with another $1 million in jeopardy. MHCCI provided mental health services for about 9,000 people last year, many of whom are low-income, uninsured or underinsured.

Gambach says Mental Health Centers is lucky enough to not be at serious risk of shutting down because it’s part of the larger Memorial Health System, but most social service agencies aren’t so lucky.

“This short-term instability we’re experiencing is creating community distress and human distress,” she said.

Soltys at SIU School of Medicine says defunding social services in Illinois will affect everyone, whether they use those services or not.

“When you look at any one program, you can say, ‘Well, that’s just one program,’ ” he said. “But when you start looking at all of the others, you start seeing a social safety net – which everyone benefits from – falling apart.”


Sidetracked

In typical Illinois fashion, this crisis in the making is precipitated by politics. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrat-controlled legislature continue to conflate side issues like property taxes and prevailing wage with negotiating a state budget.

Rauner’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget proposal, revealed in February, proposed $5 billion in spending cuts, including drastic cuts to social services. The General Assembly passed a budget funding most of those services but still cutting spending by $590 million. Rauner vetoed most of it, funding only politically popular programs like education and road-building. Although he blamed the legislature’s unbalanced budget, his veto carried an implicit message. Rauner wants his “Turnaround Agenda” – a package of mostly anti-union measures – passed before he’ll consider any new revenues, like renewing the expired income tax increase. In essence, Rauner is holding the state budget hostage in hopes of going on a union-busting spree.

Last week, Illinois Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger toured Sparc, a Springfield nonprofit which serves people with cognitive disabilities. Munger, who said she has a nephew who is autistic, was highlighting the effect of the budget stalemate on Illinois nonprofits which rely on state funding. A major part of Munger’s job as comptroller is to issue checks to state employees and entities that contract with the state, which includes social service providers. While courts have ruled that the state can pay state employees and some other expenses even without a budget, there has been no such ruling for social service providers.

“The more we have ceded the management of the state to the courts through all these court orders, the less urgency I think there is on some to get a budget in place, because now we’re funding a big chunk of the government,” Munger said. “Unfortunately, we’re not funding much of any of the nonprofits and social service groups that serve those who are most in need.”

Sparc’s chief executive officer, Greg O’Connor, says the nonprofit relies on $700,000 in state funding each month. Because of the budget stalemate, Sparc has had to borrow money for two months so far, O’Connor said, adding that he anticipates having to borrow for next month, too. He said Sparc can’t continue borrowing forever; he estimates the organization could continue borrowing until around November or December before it becomes unsustainable. Already, O’Connor anticipates having to pay $25,000 in interest, which means cutting back on services, clothing, furniture and other expenses for Sparc’s clients.

 “It has to come out of somewhere,” O’Connor said, adding that many of Sparc’s clients are wards of the state. “Most of the people we support do not have families. We are their family. People might think if this place closes, they’ll go home and live with their families. No, they wo
n’t. There’s not a place for them to go.”

Rauner’s proposed state budget would cut about $250,000 from Sparc’s yearly total budget, although the General Assembly’s budget wouldn’t cut Sparc.

Munger blames the legislature’s unbalanced budget for the current stalemate, even though Rauner’s own budget proposal relied on $3.5 billion in savings from pension cuts that will likely be found unconstitutional and spending reductions that won’t actually yield savings until future fiscal years. Rauner appointed Munger, a fellow Republican, as comptroller in January.

“I think it was incumbent on them to come in with something close that could be a point of negotiation,” Munger said, referring to the legislature. “They failed on that, and that’s what they’re elected and paid to do. Many of them have been there for many years, and the governor’s been there for seven months. There’s plenty of fingers that can be pointed in this situation, but frankly, the legislature has put us in this situation by passing unbalanced budgets for many years.”

Regardless of who is to blame, it’s clear that the savings achieved by cutting social services come with a cost. Jan Gambach at Mental Health Centers in Springfield said when Illinois cut $113 million from social services in 2009, hospitalizations shot up 20 percent by 2011, costing the state $130 million and wiping out the purported savings. Additionally, the cut increased the number of people with mental illnesses who had encounters with law enforcement, burdening police, courts and jails.

“Cutting community safety net services may give you that easy penny up front, but it costs the state more money,” Gambach said, “There’s plenty of information available on how to be more efficient by supporting community services.”

Soltys, the head of the psychiatry department at SIU School of Medicine, is also the former director of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. That experience taught him that prevention is much cheaper than cleaning up a mess afterward.

“It’s important to realize that individuals who receive effective treatment are no more dangerous than anyone in the general community,” Soltys said. “From a cost perspective, it makes much more sense to do treatment than hospitalization, both in the short term and long term.”

Kristin Allen, director of the Illinois Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, says the services her organization provides keep kids on the right track and help parents remain employed. Keeping kids in school and out of trouble helps schools and law enforcement, she says, while employers benefit from having staff who can focus on their work instead of being distracted wondering whether their children are safe.

“Our concern for programs like this is that people may not immediately see the impact in front of them,” Allen said. “They may not live in certain neighborhoods where these programs take place, but ultimately, it impacts the overall quality of life in the entire community. It affects everyone.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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