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Little interest in loans to cover state shortfalls

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SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's plan to offer loans to help cash-strapped local governments weather the lingering budget storm appears to be drawing little interest.

According to the director of the Illinois Finance Authority, only two 911 emergency telephone systems have inquired about the loans, and neither has taken the steps to apply for the financial assistance.

The lack of business comes as a surprise, Illinois Finance Authority chief Chris Meister said last week.

"I was expecting a lot of calls," Meister said.

At issue is one effect of the ongoing budget impasse between Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly.

As Illinois limps into its sixth month without a formal spending plan, hundreds of millions of dollars in gas tax revenue, 911 surcharges and other payments to local governments has been bottled up.

Emergency telephone system operators, for example, have said they are laying off workers because of the lack of cash. County road district officials have said they may not be able to salt or plow roads this winter.

Rauner has called on Democrats to approve an expanded version of legislation freeing up that money.

But, in the absence of action when the legislature reconvenes Dec. 2, a top Rauner aide wrote Monday that the administration will "move forward with contingency financing options."

Brad Cole, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, said Tuesday that the lack of interest in the loans is not a surprise.

Cities, for example, have other options to stay afloat when tax money is delayed, including asking private lenders for short term loans until the regular money begins to flow.

Bureau County 911 officials resolved their cash shortage by getting a loan from the county board to keep them afloat.

Ralph Caldwell, a member of the state 911 advisory board, said many 911 systems are using funds set aside for equipment purchases to finance payroll and other day-to-day expenses.

"Nobody is going to shut down their 911 systems. That's absurd. You have to have it," said Caldwell, who operates the Champaign County dispatch center. "People just have to be creative."

Caldwell added that local officials may be avoiding the loan process for now in hopes the legislature moves forward with a funding plan this week.

"Everybody is just holding tight," Caldwell said.

The Rauner administration continues to say the loan avenue is a key way to counter the lack of action by Democrats in approving the release of the money.

"The administration is exploring every option to keep residents safe in case House Democrats continue to play politics," spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said. "The Illinois Finance Authority and other lenders are making funds available to state vendors to ensure continued operations."

In a statement issued last week, the administration offered no other details about what it is doing to prepare state agencies to enter 2016 without a spending blueprint in place.

kurt.erickson@lee.net|(217) 782-4043

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