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Local News

Mutual Ground among organizations hurt by ongoing Illinois budget crisis

Executive director: 'There are a lot of services that are going unmet'

Among those being hurt by the state's ongoing budget crisis are some of the area's most vulnerable citizens, as domestic violence organizations learned recently that a stopgap budget passed last summer did not include funds they were promised.

One of those organizations, Aurora-based Mutual Ground, serves Kendall County residents along with those in Aurora and southern Kane County. The organization opened an office in the Kendall County Courthouse in Yorkville last February.

Michelle Meyer, Mutual Ground's executive director, said she and approximately 50 domestic violence shelter representatives learned of their funding problem during a meeting with state Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, in late November.

"We got together at Sen. Althoff's office to discuss how we could work better with the funders – DHS, Attorney General, those are some of our funders – as far as paperwork goes and administrative work, so that we could provide the best service to the clients instead of doing a bunch of administrative stuff," she said. "I was really excited to go to this meeting."

Unfortunately, at that meeting they learned that the funding was not included in the stopgap budget. That meant that Mutual Ground, as an example, would not be getting any of the $489,000 it was promised via a contract with the Department of Human Services.

"We're talking a little over 50 domestic violence agencies across the state that were completely just broadsided with this information," Meyer said. "And shame on us, shame on me, for not going through that budget line item by line item, making sure that domestic violence services were in there. I should have done that; I just assumed someone at the state level would let us know."

In an email to providers, Vickie Smith, CEO and executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who was among the audience in that meeting with Althoff, wrote in a letter to providers that on Nov. 30, she met with James T. Dimas, Illinois secretary of Human Services, and that he confirmed that domestic violence "services were not on the list negotiated by the legislators and the governor."

"I told him that the providers and ICADV were not made aware of this until 11/21," Smith wrote. "I asked the secretary if this meant the providers would not be paid for July through December services. He didn't have an answer but will get back to me."

Meyer said she assumed Mutual Ground would not get the entire amount, given the current political and fiscal environment of the state, but that the organization budgeted a portion of the funds expecting they would get at least that.

"We were never given a reason to believe that we weren't going to get that money," she said. "We knew it wasn't going to be the full amount, probably. So for us, for instance, we put about 65 percent of that award amount in our budget, thinking OK we'll be ahead of the game somehow."

In a letter to domestic violence shelters dated Dec. 16, Dimas wrote that there had "been some confusion regarding the stopgap budget and funding obligated to domestic violence prevention and intervention contracts."

"Despite the governor proposing funding for domestic violence programs in both his budget proposal and stopgap proposal, there is currently no General Revenue Fund appropriation for domestic violence programs for Fiscal Year 2017," Dimas wrote. "However, domestic violence programs are still receiving some funding through special state funds and federal funds. We fully intend to pay all domestic violence programs that have contracts with the state in full once the General Assembly works with the governor to pass a balanced budget."

Staff has been cut to cope with the lack of funding, according to Meyer. There were 38 employees at Mutual Ground in November of 2015, and there are now 29. However, the population at the facility has increased in the past year. There were 47 residents – 15 women and 32 children – at Mutual Ground in November, compared to 37 residents – 18 women and 19 children – at the facility in November of 2015.

The number of orders of protection filed for Mutual Ground clients has also soared, from 34 in October and November of 2015 to 60 in October and November of this year, according to data supplied by Meyer. In Kendall County, nine orders of protection were filed in that period in 2015, and 38 were filed in that period in 2016.

Mutual Ground served 84 domestic violence clients in Kendall County in October and November of last year, according to Meyer. During the same time period in 2015, they served 43 clients in Kendall.

"We have an office ready for us to start counseling in Kendall County in Yorkville at the food pantry and we have nobody to work in it," Meyer said. "We have a counselor in our office in Batavia who has a full caseload and we're unable to give her more hours out there. So there are a lot of services that are going unmet."

Meyer said she recently met with state Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, and state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, on the budget issue and to plead her case.

"I understand that it's gonna require some cuts and some taxes, so tell me how much is gonna be cut and let's move on," she said. "Because I can put that in my budget and I can plan. Right now, I have no way to plan. I don't know what's going to happen."

Meyer said the money the organization gets from the state for both domestic violence and sexual assault services is a "big chunk" of its budget, a total of $600,000 of the $2 million budget.

"We're definitely trying to fundraise more, we're trying every day, but there's no magic bullet for raising $600,000," she said.

Meyer argued that the state has a responsibility to the victims of domestic violence who need these services.

"The state has a certain responsibility to use taxpayer money to support individuals that are vulnerable going through something like this, and we have a contract with the state to provide those services," she said. "If the state wants to provide that service on their own, they could do that, but they're contracting with us to do this and they're not holding up their end of the bargain."

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