After falling 10 months behind in payments to the Rock Island County Probation Department, it took the threat of layoffs and media coverage for the Illinois Comptroller’s Office to release $443,634 this week.
Rock Island County Board Chairman Jim Bohnsack said the county’s finance committee was set to discuss laying off probation officers today because it could no longer cover both it and the state’s portions of their salaries.
After notifying the Illinois Comptroller’s Office about the situation and media reports Thursday, the state came through with the money. Bohnsack said the forthcoming payment was included on a list published online Thursday by the Comptroller’s Office. The payment is not yet in hand.
“It just makes you mad that they have to wait until we get to this point, that there are going to be layoffs, and then they pay it,” he said. “If you yell loud enough, then they punch the button and pay it.”
David VanLandegen, director of Rock Island County Court Services, said the state has fallen behind on such payments before but never to this degree. He said at most the state was a month or two behind.
“The state of Illinois has got to do something to fix this,” VanLandegen said, noting the state could fall behind again. “It’s not healthy.”
It’s not the first time the county or other local offices that receive state funding have seen late payments in recent years. Several are still waiting on payments.
While the Illinois legislature continues to debate how to resolve the state’s $13 billion deficit, the Comptroller’s Office makes use of what revenue it has from month to month, spokeswoman Carol Knowles said.
“We’re doing the best we can to pay many bills every day with the limited revenue we have to do that,” she said.
Knowles said the office does not react to news coverage but to reports from the agencies that need the money.
“It’s based on need and available revenue,” she said.
Every month, the Comptroller’s Office pays out $2 billion to cover the state’s short-term loans, federally required Medicaid, general state aid to schools and state payrolls, Knowles said. With what revenue is left over, officials try to cover as many pressing needs as possible, but Illinois is more than $5 billion behind in payments around the state, she said.
“What remains is what we have to cut away at the $5 billion back log,” she said. “The state’s Comptroller’s Office does its best to address emergencies as they arrive.”
Last week, the Rock Island County Health Department cut 30 positions, and some officials blamed the move on late payments from the state, which now exceed $937,000.
Knowles said the Comptroller’s Office has no other option but to cover the payments it can as deadlines and emergencies arise. In some cases, officials have to make choices based on the agency’s payment history, the deadline its facing and several other factors, she added, without providing more details.
Knowles described it as a “delicate cash management” situation.
“We may not be able to address (all of) them because we have limited revenue,” she said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation. It’s one we wish wasn’t the case.”
Bohnsack said he doesn’t know how the Comptroller’s Office makes such decisions but said pressure from local officials and legislators sometimes helps.
“I just don’t think there is any rhyme or reason to it,” he said. “I think it’s just if you holler enough from enough people then they’ll pay you.”
Bohnsack said threatening layoffs and then receiving the late payments makes it look as if the county is exaggerating the severity of the situation, but without the payments the threat of layoffs is real.
“People are saying you’re hollering wolf for nothing,” he said. “Yesterday’s call was we were going to have to lay people off.”
VanLandegen said laying off his staff means less supervision for those on probation.
“My position has been to avoid layoffs at all costs,” he said. “It is not healthy for our community.”