Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011, 5:00 am
Papers expose state's dirty little secrets
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By Roger Ruthhart
Beginning today and continuing this week, we will be presenting an in-depth look at the problems caused by the state's backlog in paying billions of dollars in bills in a series called "Deadbeat Illinois: The painful price of unpaid bills."
The exciting thing about this series is that daily newspapers across the state have worked together to produce stories that not only illustrate the statewide problem, but also its impact locally. We will also have some editorial comment to add because we think it is wrong that the state dump its problem into the laps of thousands of businesses, charities and local governments.
Members of our news staff have been working with staff at other daily newspapers as well as the Associated Press to produce this series. The effort is in conjunction with the Associated Press' year-long national Broken Budgets project.
The timing isn't coincidental. The Legislature is returning to Springfield and we hope that by shining some light on the issue across the entire state at the same time, elected officials might be inspired to action.
If not, that is an issue we are prepared to address at election time.
Our staff was responsible for creating the database which all of our partners used for their reporting. Provided by the Illinois Comptroller's Office, it is a snapshot in time -- showing the unpaid bills as of Sept. 8, 2011. With the completion of the reporting, and the launch of the series statewide, residents all over Illinois will have access to this database which can be found at billpay.qconline.com.
There's a lot to be found if you play around with the site. For example, total dollars owed within local counties were 169 bills totaling $1,577,638 in Mercer County and 391 bills for $2,415,665 in Henry County. There are 761 bills totaling $6,395,305 outstanding in Whiteside County and a whopping 1,242 bills totaling $12,542,872 in Rock Island County.
You can also search by individual towns, governments or businesses. For instance Andalusia was owed four grants totaling $24,635. Schools, businesses and government in Erie were owed $192,158. Entities in Milan were owed 31 grants and bills totaling $160,812 and there were 69 bills awaiting payment in Geneseo totaling $302,321. But those all pale in comparison to the larger cities such as Rock Island where 387 invoices were outstanding totaling more than $5.2 million and Moline where 476 invoices amounted to $3.15 million.
You also will find that some agencies are doing better than others in paying their bills. For instance the state department of human services owed bills, grants and assistance to agencies and businesses in Rock Island County totaling $2,276,429. The department of commerce and economic opportunity owed $598,082 and the department of transportation owed nothing in Rock Island County.
You will also see stories produced locally that illustrate the depths of the problem and its impact on local businesses, agencies and the economy.
The series kicks off today with an overview of the issue written by Associated Press writer Chris Wills that shows on Sept. 8 the state had nearly $1.5 billion in bills that had been waiting to be paid for at least two months because the state lacked the money.
The second story, with contributions from the AP and reporters around the state, looks at the many businesses suffering because the state isn't honoring its contract with them. The stories illustrate just the tip of the iceberg.
Another story will report on the impact on Illinois human services where the state hires community groups and charities to provide services and then doesn't pay them. The story written by AP reporter Sophia Tareen illustrates how the entire safety net for drug addicts, job training, disabled, day care for single mothers and services to the elderly is at risk.
The Champaign News-Gazette produced a story looking at the impact on public higher education. A second story looks at the impact of unpaid bills on local school districts and individual papers are encouraged to write stories assessing the impact in their towns.
The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale is spearheading coverage looking at the impact on the department of corrections and juvenile justice system. Associate Press political reporter John O'Connor will explain the process of getting paid and how clout often interferes with best practices.
Next Saturday, papers will look at the reaction from around the state. We will find out if anyone cares about this problem and whether there is any chance the state will pay its debts. Finally, next Sunday a piece written by the Peoria Journal Star will look at what this mess is costing taxpayers in the way of interest payments to local providers including how much the state has spent in prompt payment penalties.
By the end, we will have presented the taxpayers of the state with an in-depth and exhaustive look at the problem and its costs -- both in terms of dollars and the business and human toll.
Over the years we have participated in several other statewide projects and we look forward to doing more in the future. It's nice to be able to combine the resources of the state's largest and best news-gathering organizations to report a story as deep and complicated as Illinois' deadbeat status.
Roger Ruthhart is managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at email@example.com.