The third installment of my three-part Stateline series “Behind on Bills” looks at the fall-out when Illinois and New York state ran late in reimbursing counties and other local governments.
Anthony Picente decided he’d had enough. The state of New York had fallen $34 million behind on payments to Oneida County, the Upstate county around Utica where Picente is the top elected official. Picente was counting on the money to reimburse the county for services it provides that are in high demand these days: job training, food stamps and other key pieces of the social safety net.
By July, Picente hadn’t seen a check from Albany in months. He was still waiting for reimbursements for money the county spent in December. So Picente decided to fight back. Counties in New York State are expected to make their own weekly payments back to the state, in order to help pay for the state’s Medicaid program. Picente sent a letter to Governor David Paterson with a simple message: We won’t pay Albany until Albany pays us.
Ultimately, the state had the better hand in the stand-off, and it eventually paid back the county. But the late payments still took their toll.
“Part of the issue is the state, through all its budget talks, has been talking about shutting down state government,” Picente told Stateline this summer. “In essence, what they’ve done is slowly shut down county government.”
Of course, Illinois localities also suffered. Take Hardin County, in deep southern Illinois.
Money became so tight this May that the county commission laid off all seven county employees at the courthouse who weren’t elected officials. In fact, the elected officials thought they would have to go without pay, too, until the state sent some of the money that it owed. But the county still is in crisis mode. The county was able to re-hire a janitor and some office staff on a part-time basis only because David Robinson, one of the county commissioners, gave up his salary for three months. For the upcoming election, part-time staffers are coming in on their days off to make sure the paperwork is done in time. There is no money set aside to pay election judges to monitor polling stations.
Nearly all county services are getting shortchanged, but some of the most striking examples deal with cops and courts. Criminal defendants have requested jury trials in routine cases, rather than bench trials, because they know the county can’t afford to spend a few thousand dollars to pay jurors. In one case, the county prosecutor had to ask to delay the trial from May until November, when the county hopes it will have more money on hand to pay jurors. In order to keep cases from stacking up too much, the recently-retired wife of State’s Attorney Roger Ralph has come into the office to help her husband file charges. Staffing at the sheriff’s office, Ralph says, has been reduced to the point that the county is “barely able to say there’s an officer on duty at all times.”
What’s more, Hardin County is delinquent in paying its own bills, piling on to the problems other units of local government are having getting their own payments from Springfield. In her office, Mary Ellen Denton, Hardin County’s elected clerk and recorder, has a stack of unpaid bills totaling $25,000. Almost all of the payments are owed to other government entities: More than $10,000 for the regional superintendent of schools, about $5,000 for a planning commission that handles local economic development and another $5,000 to a nearby county for housing prisoners.