Metro-East News

State prisons in region owe nearly $1.8 million for water, sewer, gas

Menard Correctional Center in Chester opened in 1878.
Menard Correctional Center in Chester opened in 1878. AP

Any other customer that stopped paying for water and sewer and gas service would have been disconnected months ago.

But the one that owes the city of Chester about $1.2 million holds a trump card — almost 1,000 good-paying state jobs at the Menard Correctional Center.

The state Department of Corrections hasn’t paid Chester since last fall for water, sewer and gas service.

Mayor Tom Page said there’s concern that if the utilities were shut off, and the prison’s 3,500-plus inmates were moved elsewhere, they might not come back. And neither would the jobs.

Menard opened in 1878.

“There’s a scare that, if they would have to evacuate the facility and move those people somewhere else, that they’d have to bring Menard back up to code before they put people back in,” said Page, who happens to be a former warden at the prison. “I don’t want the scare of losing close to a thousand jobs. I wouldn’t want that to be my legacy.”

Any disruption of services — even the lights — could cause a very difficult chain of events, which I don’t believe the public would care to hear about. It’s just a reality, and it is a concern for the administration.

Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin

Still, Page said if his hand is forced, he’ll shut off the utilities.

“If they get to some point where we’re just forced into that corner, that’s exactly what I would have to do,” he said. “That’s going to be my call. But right now, we are making it. We’re transferring money from one fund to another, and we’re getting by.”

Page said the city has put off some repairs, not taken on any new projects and not hired youths for a summer work program.

Page said he’s in frequent contact with legislators and state officials, and has been told not to worry.

“They’re trying to tell me to hang on, that it’s going to be OK. I have a pretty good feeling in my gut that they’re getting closer in Springfield,” he said. “It’s my understanding they’re getting close to having a stopgap budget approved, but we’ve heard that before.”

Chester isn’t the only community trying to wring payments out of the Department of Corrections during the state’s year-long budget impasse.

For example, the Mount Sterling City Council voted 6-0 Monday to keep the water on at Western Illinois Correctional Center, even though DOC owes the city of 1,900 residents about $313,000 for water service.

In Centralia, the Department of Corrections owes the city about $393,000 for water service. The state’s last payment for water service at Centralia Correctional Center was a partial payment in August. The Centralia prison has its own sewer system.

Centralia city manager Dan Ramey said he’s been thinking about asking city leaders to charge interest on the late bills. Residential customers are charged 10 percent interest.

Ramey said the city so far has been able to cope with the late payments. “We’ve just been able to work out of the reserve dollars that we’ve got for future improvements to the plant and things of this nature,” he said.

Centralia also is home of another major state facility, the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center, which recently faced a threat of closure. Gov. Bruce Rauner and state politicians from the region fought to keep it open.

“Those things mean a lot to the city. We don’t forget that,” Ramey said. “The city’s had a great relationship with the state. We just can’t agree on everything.”

He added, “We understand you can’t get blood out of a turnip. We’ve been hoping and hoping and hoping that the governor and the House and the Senate come to some kind of agreement to vote to pay these type of things.”

Ramey said the state keeps up-to-date on its bills at Murray Center, apparently because of a court order or law that involves developmental centers.

Ramey said the city has “no intention of even attempting to shut off their water” at the prison.

“But at some point, I can see myself recommending to the council that we start putting on the interest, because this is just a continuous issue — constantly — with the state,” Ramey said.

But at some point, I can see myself recommending to the council that we start putting on the interest, because this is just a continuous issue — constantly — with the state.

Dan Ramey, Centralia city manager

And if the budget stalemate goes on for another year?

“The city, I think, at that point would come out more vocally and concerned about it, but I don’t think it would change our position in not wanting to shut the water off there,” Ramey said. “I hope that situation doesn’t happen. It’s not something I want to think about right now.”

The Department of Corrections also owes about $200,000 for water and sewer services at Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in East St. Louis. DOC spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said the amount is owed to the city of East St. Louis, Illinois American Water Company and the Metro East Sanitary District.

The amounts owed to those metro-east entities:

▪  City of East St. Louis — $12,641.30

▪  Illinois American Water Company — $96,849.52

▪  Metro East Sanitary District — $91,715.80

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin is warning that the legislature needs to approve a stopgap budget by July in order to avoid dangerous problems at the state’s prisons.

“Those that are supplying food at some point, if they’re not going to get paid, and they continue to supply the state a product but aren’t getting paid for it, it is a concern. It is a legitimate concern,” Durkin told the Chicago Sun-Times.

He added, “Any disruption of services — even the lights — could cause a very difficult chain of events, which I don’t believe the public would care to hear about. It’s just a reality, and it is a concern for the administration.”

Any disruption of services — even the lights — could cause a very difficult chain of events, which I don’t believe the public would care to hear about. It’s just a reality, and it is a concern for the administration.

Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin

The Sun-Times reported the state owes more than $32.3 million to providers for all 43 of the state’s prisons and work camps for water and sewer services, gas and electricity.

Brian Brueggemann: 618-239-2475, @B_Brueggemann

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