DHS office closure sparks ire in Stark County

Gary L. Smith

A decision by the Illinois Department of Human Services to close its longstanding office here in the seat of tiny Stark County has provoked shock and outrage from city and county officials.

"It is disappointing that the state of Illinois makes these types of decisions that affect taxpayers without any consultation from the local communities that this office serves," said Toulon Mayor Kyle Ham. "With this decision, the entire county will be without essential services for those who need it the most."

Stark County Board Chairman Mike Bigger, who has founded a statewide association of small counties with population less than 10,000, said the episode supports his arguments that residents of such areas are often not treated fairly.

"I think it's really discouraging that the delivery of state services is dependent on where you live," said Bigger, who vowed to spearhead a political and public relations campaign to get the decision reversed. He previously led a successful campaign to keep a Secretary of State Driver Services facility in Wyoming.

"We may not win, but we're not going to go quietly on this," Bigger said.

Plans for the closing, which seemed to take everyone in Stark County by surprise, emerged after the owners of the small building leased by DHS, Kenneth and Sandra Richardson, were notified by mail recently the lease would be terminated by July 16. Sandra Richardson has been Stark County treasurer for about three years, but the building lease was in effect several years before that.

The state has been paying $2,018.75 a month on a 10-year lease on the building, Sandra Richardson said. She said she had been unable to get any answers after receiving a termination notice from the state's Department of Central Management Services.

"We spent a lot of money (on the building) in order to try to keep the business here in Toulon," she said.

CMS referred most questions to DHS, where a spokesperson said the Toulon office will be one of about 17 expected to be closed this year in an effort to "improve services" for the agency's clients. Those closings are taking place in small offices that are close to larger offices, partly to address "safety issues" that could arise in offices with only a few employees, said spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus.

The three employees and operations in Toulon will be shifted to Kewanee, about 15 miles away in Henry County, she said. Negotiations with unions are taking place to ensure no jobs are lost, she added.

"We are doing every step to minimize the impact on our customers," Sainvilus said.

Sainvilus said she could not immediately provide any further information on who actually decided to close the Toulon office. But the CMS notice of lease termination was copied to DHS officials Henry Johnson and Drinda O'Connor.

Joshua Barbee, a County Board member who represents Toulon, called the closing a case of the county "shouldering the fallout" for state decisions.

"This will be a double blow to our county," Barbee said. "The closing of the state office will not only have a negative impact on our local economy, but it will also involve a lot of low-income residents not getting the services and support they need."

Gary L. Smith can be reached at (309) 686-3041 orstate@pjstar.com.