STERLING – Illinois has a temporary budget, but for human services agencies, directors say very little has changed.
The Legislature passes a series of bills late Thursday that will keep government operating for 6 months, and fund schools for a full year.
While the new budget deal might help stop the bleeding for a while, for many Illinois residents, it’s just another instance of kicking the can down the road.
“I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Jeff Stauter, executive director at Kreider Services, based in Dixon. “Even with the stopgap budget, it won’t help until the $8 billion budget deficit question is addressed. This retains the status quo, which is unacceptable.”
That projected deficit is now closer to $9 billion, and the state owes an estimated $159 billion on services from past years of deficit budgets. More than double the state’s annual revenue is needed to pay off past debt.
Stauter and Brion Brooks, executive director at Village of Progress in Oregon, sat down with the Sauk Valley Media Editorial Board Wednesday to discuss the social services crisis. Both work in disability services, and both have special needs children.
The temporary budget calls for a $673 million increase for social services, but that’s only about 65 percent of what is owed on services provided from July 2015 through the end of this year. Details were not provided about a payment timeline.
While the crisis has deepened in the absence of a state budget, the social services agencies have been struggling for much longer.
Stauter has done advocacy work in Springfield, and is in tune with the inner workings of state government.
“There has been more than a decade of neglect for social services, but many people are just now seeing it,” Stauter said. “We’ve just cut and cut to try to keep up with revenue, but the budget mess has made things even harder.”
Through court orders to continue Medicaid payments, most funding for disability services has been trickling in, but for agencies unprotected by the courts, the crisis has deepened.
According to the United Way of Illinois, 1 million people have lost social services in the last year, thanks largely to the budget impasse. The United Way survey also shows that 429 respondents reported that 91 percent of the state’s agencies have been forced to cut the number of clients they serve.
Many agencies have been forced to raid reserves and take out loans for daily operations, while others have made deep cuts, and could soon have to close their doors
Illinois, on average, owes $525,000 to every agency that is waiting for payment on state contracts. Those agencies have accumulated an estimated $37.7 million in debt. Banks are getting nervous as extensions are made on lines of credit. Many agencies trying to move credit lines or start new ones are being turned down.
While the statistics are staggering, Brooks said it’s important to remember the faces behind the numbers.
Kreider has 30 group homes in Lee, Whiteside and Ogle counties. Kreider has about 200 residential clients, 300 others, and 400 employees.
Village of Progress serves about 100 developmentally disabled clients in Ogle County, including those with epilepsy, autism, and cerebral palsy.
Even before the budget crisis, Illinois had fallen far behind most states in allocating funds for the disabled.
“In Illinois, we get $44 per capita on disability services, and the average in the Midwest region is $133,” Brooks said.
Staffing is a huge problem for agencies providing disability services. Direct support professionals are the hands-on caregivers, and DSPs are projected to be one of the fastest-growing job segments in the country.
The average wage for DSPs, however, is $9.35 an hour, leading to high turnover.
“There are many jobs with comparable and higher pay that don’t involve taking people to the toilet,” Brooks said. “The DSPs also must have at least 40 hours of training, and they are subjected to very thorough background checks.”
Legislation has been introduced in the Illinois House and Senate to increase the starting wage for DSPs to $15 an hour. In the meantime, one of every four of those jobs goes unfilled. Kreider currently has openings for 20 full-time caregivers.
Brooks said the turnover can be devastating for the clients and their families.
“Aging family members worry about who will care for clients when they are gone,” Brooks said. “Caregivers get to know important things about them that only the parents know, and the revolving door is devastating for clients and families.”
Kreider was forced to cut its respite services last year because the agency feared there would be no state payments.
Brooks said about 60 people from Ogle County are on the state’s priority of needs list while the state decides whether to fund their care.
“They live in a very small universe while they are on the list,” Brooks said. “Our foundation is paying for some on the list to come here a couple of times a week for some socialization, but their life experiences are very limited.”
Brooks said it’s difficult to advocate for those who have no voice. He said many people in the area are still unaware of what his organization does.
“I think it’s out of sight, out of mind for many people,” Brooks said. “There are people who were born and raised in Oregon who tell me they didn’t even know Village of Progress existed.”
Stauter said if people don’t come into contact with the disabled population, he fears the advocacy efforts can fall on deaf ears.
“Legislators have heard so many social services horror stories, I think they eventually become numb,” Stauter said.
Brooks said it also is convenient for politicians to not care about a segment of the population that doesn’t vote.
House Bill 5932 and Senate Bill 2952 have been introduced in the Illinois Legislature. If passed, the bills would increase the starting wage for direct support professionals to $15 an hour.