CHESTER — On Jan. 4, the city of Chester sent its second hardship letter in four months to the Illinois Comptroller’s Office requesting payment for utility bills for the Menard Correctional Facility.
“This letter is to express the urgency to remedy the $1,231,818.48 owed to the City of Chester, Illinois, for utility services provided to the Menard Correctional Center and MSU (Medium Security Unit)," the letter from Chester Mayor Thomas Page and City Clerk Bethany Berner reads. "The state is more than one hundred and twenty (120) days behind in the payments to the City of Chester.”
Chester is in contract with the prison to provide water, sewer and gas utilities, and has had to pay those bills out of pocket as they wait for the state to pay its backlog of bills.
The letter indicates that the city has not received a sewer payment since February of last year, while the water and gas accounts are behind starting in June.
In the letter, Page and Berner write that the city has had to defer maintenance to the water facility, which the city still owes bond debt on. They write they are not able to set aside the bond payments — $54,000 each month — because the state is in arrears on payments to them.
“We have been putting Band-Aids on things instead of permanent fixes, and a lot of it relates to the money the state owes us,” Page said in interview Monday.
“The state owes money to everybody,” said Abdon Pallasch, Director of Communications for Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s Office, adding that Chester's situation was not unique.
The Comptroller's Office on Tuesday announced it was making $11.2 million in utility payments throughout the state. The announcement said with such a huge backlog of bills going back through the years-long budget impasse, it will be hard for Mendoza’s office to find its way through the state's debt.
“With an $9.2 billion backlog of bills, the Comptroller's Office will continue to be challenged on a month-to-month basis in addressing the ongoing core obligations of the state and in chipping away at old bills,” the release says.
Jamey Dunn, deputy director of communications for the comptroller's office, said this payment included $102,881.21 to Chester, which should have caught the city up through fiscal year 2017 where its general fund bills were concerned.
Dunn said some other utility bills from prisons are paid through the Working Capital Revolving Fund, which is controlled by the Department of Corrections itself and not the comptroller's office. She said they "cash manage" the fund and tell her office what bills to pay out of it.
When Page learned of the payment, he said it was good news, but by the time Chester receives the check, it would be a drop in the bucket of what the city needs to mitigate the damage of unpaid bills.
Page said in a few weeks the city will bill Menard for the month of January and he said it’s possible this $102,000 payment could just cover January, “if that."
As Pallasch said, Chester is not the only city waiting on payment for a prison's utilities. The state also owes Pinckneyville $896,159.52, city clerk Larry West said, for water, sewer and gas services the city provides to the Pinckneyville Correctional Center.
“It’s hurting like hell,” West said of the strain on the city’s finances. He said he is having to scrimp from everywhere he can while he waits on a check.
“You are looking at a third of your water/sewer customers not paying,” he said, providing context for the volume the prison makes up in their utility services. He said this balance is for roughly six to eight months of unpaid bills.
West said the last check the city received for the prison’s bills came in October. At the time, West said, the state owed $980,805 and sent a payment of $464,078, bringing their balance down to $516,727.
Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said his city also partners with a correctional facility — they provide water and sewer services to the Impact Incarceration Program and have a backlog of two to three years of bills totaling around $8,074.14. Like Pinckneyville and Chester, Alongi said his city got a payment check in October.
“It’s just a standard way of doing business with the state of Illinois anymore,” Alongi said, adding that he knows eventually the city will get its money.
Page said there is no next step for his city as far as damage control. He said the state needs to pay. With temperatures dipping regularly below freezing, he said it’s not an option to cut the prison off. He knows firsthand how bad having utilities cut off can be for a prison — this happened to him as warden of Menard during the historic Mississippi River flood in 1993.
“It was just a nightmare the average person just wouldn’t understand,” he said of having to bring in port-a-potties for inmates when the river overtook the prison’s water facility.
“I know in my heart that turning off their utilities is not the right thing to do,” he said.
Page said other alternatives are hard to conceive of. He said furloughs or layoffs within the sewer and water plants aren’t easy to do because they have to run the facilities constantly to keep up with the demand of the prison — the letter says that the city renovated its water plant, increasing its size to keep up with demand from Menard.
There is a bright spot, though. Page and Berner said they met with a representative from the Comptroller’s Office and Page said he thinks they could see some relief soon.
“I really do have my hopes up high again,” he said of the meeting.
Berner said blame cannot be placed squarely on the state, though. In their talks with with the representative from the comptroller’s office, she was told that after the city sends a bill to the prison and it is approved there, it is then sent to another department within the DOC. It is here that another clog exists, she said.
Pallasch said that there is a delay in the state getting bills from the prison, which is making the wait times even longer.
Dunn said the Comptroller’s Office's records do not match the amounts the city indicates the state owes, which she said does not indicate error on the city’s part, but points to a breakdown in bills being delivered for payment.
A representative from IDOC could not be reached to clarify how bills make their way from a prison to the comptroller's office, nor to provide a list of what utility bills from municipalities are still waiting to be sent to the Comptroller's Office for payment.