Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Union asks state to slow down on closures

By Jamey Dunn

A union representing public employees is asking lawmakers to slow down on their timeline to consider the closure of several state facilities.

According to Gov. Pat Quinn, the budget passed by lawmakers falls $313.5 million short of paying for state operations through the end of the current fiscal year. The governor’s proposed solution includes closing seven state facilities and laying off about 1,900 employees, which he said will save the state about $54.8 million.

But Henry Bayer, executive director of the Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the schedule for hearings before the legislature's Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, which will make recommendations on the proposed closures, would discourage input from the public. “[T]he administration is intent on implementing these closures as quickly as possible with as little public scrutiny as possible. Unfortunately, it appears that COGFA is prepared to collaborate in this effort to stifle public review and input rather than seeking to provide an independent review based on the broadest possible public examination of the facts — as is the clear intent of the law,” Bayer stated in a letter sent to COGFA members.

A statement from AFSCME says that scheduling a hearing on the Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford for next Wednesday — giving the public a week of notice — as  well as scheduling another hearing on the Murphysboro Youth Center in Carbondale on a weekday morning makes it difficult for concerned citizens from the community and employees of the facilities to attend. AFSCME also complained that COGFA does not plan to conduct a hearing on the Tinley Park Mental Health Center because the commission already voted in support of closing the institution in 2009.

AFSCME is asking that hearings be held on nights or weekends, that two weeks notice is given before any hearings and that the hearings be held in the same municipality as the facilities  being considered for closure.

Hinsdale Republican Rep. Patricia Bellock, a COGFA co-chair, said scheduling decisions are based solely on the logistics of trying to get as many COGFA members to a hearing as possible. She adds that the legally required timeline for a facility closure forces COGFA to act quickly when making recommendations. “We certainly want to give transparency. The whole reason we are having theses hearings is so that people can have public comments.”

Bellock, who voted to close the Tinley Park center in 2009, said she understands that things have changed since then, but she said she does not know if COGFA will reverse its decision about holding a new hearing. “We did have the hearing. We had a long hearing on it.”

Bellock said that no matter how soon COGFA makes its recommendations, the closure of any of the state faculties will take time if it is to be done right.  “It took us over two years to transition people out of Howe [Developmental Center in Tinley Park.] …. So the governor, I know he feels financial pressures, but at the same time these are people’s lives and these are people’s jobs and these are people’s communities.”

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