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Special ed, nonprofits ‘get first crack’ at state money: Topinka

Laremont School principal Mary Sowers (left) Mundeleshows Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinkvoice output communicatidevice used by students school Gages Lake.

Laremont School principal Mary Sowers (left) of Mundelein shows Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka a voice output communication device used by students at the school in Gages Lake. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 16, 2013 6:22AM

GAGES LAKE — Pulling no punches in her trademark style, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka said Monday that the fiscal picture “is such a mess in Springfield it just makes me sick,” requiring her to stock three bottles of antacids ­— one for her home in Riverside, one for her residence in the capital city and one for her car.

“Being the chief financial officer of a bankrupt state must be like being the obituary writer for a newspaper,” said Topinka, drawing laughter from board members and educators from the Special Education District of Lake County following a tour of Laremont School.

But Topinka added that “we will get through this ­— for the sake of our state and the residents that you serve, we have to get through this,” and she sought to assure the SEDOL community that organizations assisting the disabled will have their funding needs pushed to the front of the line in her office.

“I know you’ve got to be struggling to make ends meet, because this has got to be not only labor-intensive, but money-intensive operation, and you’re going to hold on to your funding sources wherever you can get them while you cope with the state’s late payments,” Topinka said. “When money does come in, (by) law, we have to take care of our bondholders first and our payroll, boom-boom. But after that, it’s totally subjective how I want to line up the payments.

“So we have tried to put organizations like yours and the nonprofits that take care of developmentally disabled people (up) at the top, so you will get first crack at the monies that are available,” Topinka added, urging SEDOL officials to “use us. You have a friend in this office, so use us.”

Offering specifics, Topinka reported that the district will receive two payments in the next three weeks for vouchers submitted in early September — $258,091 for the transportation fund and $1.9 million for the general fund. She added later that Illinois is backlogged up to six months in paying out obligations, joking that “(we) might be the only state in the nation where we consider it good news to get payments every 90 days.”

Barbara Watson, SEDOL director of business services, told Topinka that she has noticed recent improvement in payouts from the state, saying the district was running two payments short for about two years but is currently up to date for fiscal 2012. Topinka said in any event, her office looks to provide nonprofits and school districts like SEDOL with “some portion of (funding vouchers) to keep you going, so you can budget.”

Topinka and her staff also visited the Lake County Center for Independent Living in Mundelein on Monday before arriving at SEDOL’s campus off Gages Lake Road. Laremont Principal Mary Sowers and district Superintendent Thomas Moline led Topinka on a tour of the four-year-old school’s various special facilities, including rooms that focus on mobility and gross motor skills. Topinka said she came away “just stunned, absolutely stunned. Awed.”

“I just didn’t believe things like this existed, and that for all these special needs that you could come up with something to fill it and allow people to be all that they can be, which is a really, really wonderful thing,” she said, telling the SEDOL officials that assistance for the disabled is a personal issue for her.

“I grew up with my developmentally disabled uncle — I mean, literally grew up with him, almost as a sibling,” Topinka said. “He worked until almost age 70 as a garbageman (back) in the day when things like this did not exist. ... It was a helpful experience. I still think I could bring somebody out of a grand mal seizure that the average bear can’t do.”

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