MARION — A locally administered welfare program, known as general assistance, is returning to Williamson County after a five-month absence.

The Williamson County board approved a motion submitted by Commissioner Brent Gentry during a Tuesday regular meeting. Chairman Ron Ellis abstained as Gentry and Commissioner Jim Marlo approved.

After getting invoices in late 2012 that far exceeded the $120,000 budget amount, the board acted to suspend the program. Board members worked to draw up new guideline and eligibility standards to reduce costs.

What became an issue recently was the county’s eligibility guidelines that have to be in accordance with the state’s Public Aid Act that allows people as young as 18 to qualify for general assistance. The board had considered program eligibility for those between the ages of 55 and 62 with the intent of it being a transition period until recipients could qualify for Social Security and Medicare services.

Commissioner Brent Gentry said the board was contacted by Land of Lincoln legal aid and told to abide by the law and “get it (general assistance) up and running or face a lawsuit.”

Before casting his vote of abstention, Ellis said he was upset about certain provisions of general assistance mandated by state statute.

“I think it’s an abomination Cook County is exempt through the (Illinois) Legislature from having to provide it. We are encouraging our 18 to 20-year-olds with a blueprint on how to get welfare instead of working. This goes against my moral fiber,” Ellis said.

Describing general assistance as an “unfunded mandate” by the state, Gentry said he understood Ellis’ frustration, but the board was obliged to go by the law.

“They (Illinois Legislature) keep adding laws,” Gentry said as he held up a copy of the eligibility guidelines. “We are not made of money. This is going to eventually break the bank.”

Marlo said Ellis’ argument was “compelling,” but as a county official, Marlo said he promised to uphold the law when he took an oath of office.

“I don’t think we really have a choice,” Marlo said, noting later that county citizens should get active and contact their state representatives and senators to change the law.

The board agreed on drug testing qualifications as part of general assistance requirements, which will prohibit any potential recipient who tests positive for an illegal substance for 30 days from general assistance vouchers. Recipients who test negative for presence of illegal substances after the 30-day period will be reinstated. If they test positive after 60 days, they will be dropped from the program with a chance to reapply after a year.

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