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NIU, other agencies cope with state’s late payments

Debbie Beranek (right), an information and assistance specialist for the Elder Care Services in DeKalb, helps Herbert and Laverne Selman make sense of their medical bills on Wednesday.
Debbie Beranek (right), an information and assistance specialist for the Elder Care Services in DeKalb, helps Herbert and Laverne Selman make sense of their medical bills on Wednesday.

DeKALB – The state of Illinois owes the DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau $22,000.

At Elder Care Services, it’s $165,000. At the Voluntary Action Center, it’s $910,000. At Northern Illinois University, it’s $89.7 million.

These agencies, like so many others, have become used to late payments from the state. But it never gets easier, NIU spokesman Brad Hoey said.

“It seems about the same, in terms of late payments,” Hoey said “We’re accustomed to it. But that doesn’t mean it makes it any less difficult to deal with.”

NIU and other agencies – ranging from local school districts to community service organizations – have found their own ways to cope Illinois’ inability to pay its bills on time.

The state’s current backlog of bills is at least $7 billion. And it might not get better. The backlog of bills will reach almost $22 billion in 2018 unless some kind of pension reform is enacted, according to a report from the Civic Federation of Chicago, a pension reform-watchdog group.

The late payments have meant that Voluntary Action Center has to borrow money from a local bank to stay afloat, said Tom Zucker, the center’s executive director.

State funding comprises almost half of the center’s $7 million budget, Zucker said.

In fiscal 2013, VAC will receive $2.9 million in transportation grants from the state for the TransVAC and MedVAC programs, as well as $250,000 for other programs. Zucker said $750,000 of the $910,000 is owed just for VAC’s transportation services.

“It’s a nightmare for cash-flow management,” Zucker said. “It’s not something we would be able to manage without taking the steps we made several years ago.”

Last year, VAC had to pay just more than $10,000 in interest payments to keep its line of credit open, Zucker said.

“We would not be able to provide services under these grants without the line of credit,” Zucker said. “We have no way to absorb the problems.”

For VAC, the best-case scenario is that things stay the same, he said. If the six-month delay in payments extends, he added, the organization will be in trouble.

The situation hasn’t been as precarious for Elder Care Services in DeKalb. Executive Director Tara Culotta said there have been no waiting lists of clients wanting to use their services as a result of the late payments.

“We work conservatively as an agency,” Culotta said. “We’re doing more with less, I guess, and we’re trying to serve clients as best as we can.”

With an annual budget of $600,000, the late payments from the state amounts to 27.5 percent of their annual budget. Culotta said 75 percent of the agency’s funding comes from the state and federal government, with the remaining 25 percent from local sources.

Culotta and other agency heads like her are eying next year’s budget. Gov. Pat Quinn will give his budget address next week, while growing pension costs are expected to eat $400 million for education, the Associated Press reported Monday. Cuts to public safety and economic development are also projected.

“If they do slash programs, it could hurt our agency,” Culotta said.

Public universities including NIU are used to funding cuts. The Illinois General Assembly has cut funding to the university in six of the past 13 years, with NIU receiving the same amount of money as it did in 1995, Hoey said.

“We’re hoping it will level off and go the other direction,” Hoey said. “But we’ll have to wait and see.”

The university relies heavily on tuition and fees paid by the 21,000 or so students, as well as donations from private individuals and groups, Hoey said. State contributions to the university make up 20 percent of its funding.

No new austerity measures were being implemented, Hoey said. For the past few years, travel for university employees has been reduced, and while employees who retire or leave might not have their positions automatically filled.

Jason Nicol, executive director of DeKalb Youth Service Bureau, described the late payment as being “not too shabby.” He added that the state already has cut a number of programs YSB would have done.

The bureau runs the state’s runaway lockout program with both state and federal funds. The bureau reaches out to kids who have left home – voluntarily or not – and their families.

The runaway lockout program is mandated by state law, but other programs the bureau participated in weren’t. In fiscal 2009, the bureau received about $200,000 from the state, but as programs were cut, that amount dropped to $47,000 in fiscal 2013.

Locally owed

Some of the local organizations to which the State of Illinois owes money:

DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau – $22,000

Elder Care Services – $165,000

Voluntary Action Center – $910,000

Northern Illinois University – $89.7 million

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