Budget crisis starting to hit Austin

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Two weeks into the new fiscal year, the state of Illinois is still without a budget, and some Austin service providers are beginning to feel the pinch.

One program immediately impacted by the continuing budget battle: the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps people struggling to pay their electric and gas bills.

The program has been suspended until at least September, said South Austin Coalition Community Council Executive Director Bob Vondrasek.

The cuts to the program are critical to Austin residents because 35 to 40 percent of people in the community – the most–populated of Chicago’s 77 community areas – need some kind of assistance, Vondrasek said.

Without that assistance, there is a fear that desperate times will push some to desperate measures.

“I’m just afraid to see what will happen when people can’t get their gas turned, their lights turned,” said SACCC lead consultant Theresa Welch.

“Are we going to see more fires? Yes,” Welch said. “Are we going to see more people doing illegal things to get their lights turned on? Yes, we are.”

The uncertainty in the wake of the budget fiasco has resulted in more Austin residents, especially seniors, contacting the longtime Austin group. Welch said SACCC is getting 30 to 40 calls every day from people asking how they can keep their lights and gas on.

“We’re asking them to weigh their options, to first read the letters, look at their bills and determine whether or not they need to be contacting the utilities to see if they need to be put on some kind of payment plan,” she said.

Austin residents Janice Blackmon and her mother Otis Green visited SACCC’s Austin office to figure out their options.

“You just have to try and cut back on electricity and gas, especially in the winter,” Blackmon said. “The only thing we can do is work with the utilities, and hope they work with us.”

The Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner are still at odds over how to solve the budget debacle.

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago) said although about $32 billion in general revenue has been collected from taxpayers, that still falls short of the $36 billion the state needs to cover all state-funded programs.

“It makes no sense for (the governor) and the Republicans to hold hostage $32 billion in taxpayer dollars and say that we’re not going to pay state workers, we’re not going provide programs and services to the most vulnerable people in Illinois, unless we get the turnaround agenda that has nothing to do with the health and safety of the people of Illinois,” Ford said.

Some of those items in Rauner’s “turnaround” agenda fueling the budget impasse include what state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Chicago) called non-budgetary issues, such as workers compensation reform and a property tax freeze.

Rauner’s office did not return a request for comment.

Other items on the governor’s chopping block include $750 million cuts to state Medicaid reimbursements, which then double to $1.5 billion after matching federal funds are added to the equation, said Lightford, who serves on Loretto Hospital’s Board of Directors.

Loretto Hospital, the largest non-governmental employer in Austin, could lose about $25 million to $30 million — or about 45 percent of its total budget — if these cuts go through, said Loretto Chief Financial Officer Kenneth McGhee.

McGhee said for now, the hospital is operating “business as usual” for the time being, with no hiring freezes or layoffs expected in the near future.

While many service providers struggle to find ways to make ends meet and the budget crisis showing no signs of resolution, at least one non-profit group in Austin — BUILD Chicago — prepared itself by reducing its dependency on state dollars to fund programs.

About 3,000 young people each year receive services through BUILD, ranging from education resources through after-school programs to leadership development programs, Executive Director Adam Alonso said.

Alonso called Rauner’s plan to cut teen outreach programs “very short sighted” and said BUILD is working to make sure none of its participants lose services.

“It’s our intent to continue to serve the communities we do, but to try and have as little reliance on state funding as possible,” Alonso said.

“We can’t afford to (cut programs). Kids’ lives mean more than the fight at the state.”

Rep. Ford urged residents to rally and fight for the services they and their neighbors depend on.

“This is the time for the people of Illinois to speak up,” Ford said.

“This is the time for the people to be in charge of their government and say, ‘What’s most important is that we have a budget, that we take care of the people of Illinois.’”

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