Here comes Santa Claus: Senate OKs $8.4M refund to Wood River hospital taxpayers

News-DemocratOctober 23, 2013 

State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton

After some partisan debate, the Illinois Senate on Wednesday approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Bill Haine that would return $8.4 million from the defunct Wood River Township Hospital to taxpayers.

The bill passed 51-5 in the Senate and now goes to the House.

In a committee hearing Wednesday, senators wrangled over whose name would be on the refund checks: Madison County's Democratic county clerk or the county's Republican treasurer.

Haine, an Alton Democrat, filed the legislation this week. It calls for the refund checks to be written by Madison County's county clerk, who is Debbie Ming-Mendoza, and happens to be a fellow Democrat.

Sen. Kyle McCarter, a Republican from Lebanon, argued the checks should be written by Madison County's treasurer, who is Kurt Prenzler, and happens to be a fellow Republican.

"I think the way it normally happens is that the treasurer sends the checks out," McCarter told Haine.

Haine said county clerks commonly write checks under a checks-and-balance system with county treasurers. He asked why GOP senators would question that.

"Is it because the treasurer's a Republican and the clerk's a Democrat?" Haine asked.

Tongue-in-cheek, Haine added, "I am shocked that politics would have a role in this."

McCarter said he thinks state law requires the treasurer to write the checks, and that it's clear why Democrats want Ming-Mendoza's name on them.

"She's Santa Claus now," McCarter said afterward.

The situation left McCarter, normally a tax opponent, in the weird position of voting against a tax refund. The committee approved the measure by an 8-2 vote, with the "no" votes cast by McCarter and fellow Republican Sen. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Hill.

The hospital closed in 2000. After 10 years of retiring debt and paying out pension benefits, the hospital fund has $8.4 million left over.

"There have been many different proposals for what to do with these funds, but the fairest, most-practical and overwhelmingly supported solution is to give this money back to taxpayers," Haine said.

The hospital board, chaired by Chris Slusser, a Republican, voted recently to return the money to property taxpayers within the hospital's taxing district. Slusser has estimated that a person with a $100,000 home would receive a refund of $420 to $450.

Mayors of communities within the taxing district have proposed that the money be given to the communities, with the stipulation that it be spent on projects such as parks or roads. The mayors argue it would be difficult to return money to the property owners who paid the taxes, because some properties have changed hands over the years.

But neither the hospital board nor the mayors have the authority to decide what to do with the surplus. State law requires that hospital tax money be spent on the hospital. Since the hospital no longer exists, new legislation is required to decide what will happen to the money.

The bill also will need approval in the Illinois House, where it is sponsored by Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton.

The bill is Senate Bill 496.

Here's how the metro-east's senators voted on the bill when it reached the Senate floor:

* Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton: Yes

* Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville: Yes

* Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon: No

* Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville: Didn't vote

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