ROCK FALLS – Administrator Beth Fiorini easily sums up the Whiteside County Health Department’s relationship with government at any level:
“We tell our leaders that if they take care of us, we’ll take care of our citizens,” Fiorini said.
That message was received by two state leaders Thursday, when state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Rock Island, and state Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, visited the health department and fielded questions from staff.
This is a milestone year for the health department and health center. The health department celebrated its 50th anniversary in April, while the health center is marking its 10th year.
In a state that has gone 18 months without a long-term budget, it becomes increasingly difficult to take care of anyone. Although the state accounts for a small percentage of the federally funded nonprofit’s revenue mix, no one is untouched by its financial crisis.
“We’re still waiting for $330,000 from a state grant we received for our behavioral health programs,” Fiorini said.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn came to town Oct. 30, 2014, to announce the health department was the recipient of a $1 million grant for an expansion that would house the rapid growth of its behavioral services programs.
The concerns for those providing vital health and social services, however, extend beyond the budget situation. The legislators said they, too, question priorities in Springfield, and are fearful for the future.
Smiddy said state government is becoming further removed from the things that matter most to people.
“Some in Springfield think community health dollars are wasteful spending, and the state doesn’t care about mental health issues,” Smiddy said. “If we keep going in this direction, we’re going to lose these services.”
As a firefighter and paramedic, Anderson said he is continually reminded of the importance of mental health services.
“Since I started until now, the mental health-related calls we get at the fire department have easily quadrupled,” Anderson said.
The lawmakers aren’t scheduled to be back in session until November, and with another political season upon us, they don’t anticipate a special budget session. Both say they are frustrated by the partisanship that has created a hostile work environment.
“We get labeled because we have a R or D behind our names,” Anderson said. “I know Mike and I often have the same goals, but we just have different ideas on how to get there.”
The 36th District senator sees political gamesmanship as the biggest barrier to a long-term budget.
“This is an uncomfortable situation for both parties, but we need adult conversations, not political conversations,” Anderson said. “Making it worse is that nobody wants to talk or compromise during election season.”
Smiddy said the environment in Springfield lends itself to personal attacks that make it more difficult to do what you think is right.
“You need to be able to give opinions without it being thrown into a mailer or robocall,” Smiddy said.
One health department worker suggested the lawmakers could take a cue from their staff.
“We’ve had to constantly reach out to our competitors and develop relationships in order to do what’s best for our patients,” Care Coordinator Marcia Widolff said.
Although the lawmakers said they were frustrated by a lack of compromise, neither is a fan of the bipartisan working groups that produced a framework for the stopgap budget. Smiddy, who sits on the higher education appropriations committee, said it circumvents the process.
“My appropriations committee didn’t even meet this year, and we didn’t see a budget until 3 days before the vote,” Smiddy said. “I hate the working groups because all of the work is done behind closed doors – it’s not transparent and it hurts everyone in this room.”
Anderson shared his colleague’s concerns about the budget work that was done in small groups.
“Appropriations committees are there for a reason, and they should be used when you’re doing a budget,” he said.
Anderson is a strong supporter of biennial budgeting, especially when part of one fiscal year is in the books before a new one is produced, he said. Proponents say that doing a budget every 2 years also minimizes the impact of election seasons.
There is some momentum building in that direction, Anderson said, and he expects it to be part of the budget conversation in November.