For Illinois $245M Legionnaires’ fix, rhetoric meets reality
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A deadly Legionnaires’ disease crisis at a state-run veterans’ home, persisting for years, has so flummoxed Illinois officials that they have concluded the best remedy is to start over.
Now, rhetoric meets reality.
A report last week from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration recommends a re-do of up to $245 million on the campus of the Quincy veterans home. It would include a new residential facility and replacing its ancient, serpentine plumbing thought to be a breeding ground for the Legionella bacteria that has caused 13 residents’ deaths since 2015 and made dozens more residents and staff members seriously ill.
There’s little question that Republican Rauner and Democrats who control the General Assembly want quick action, and the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 31. But agreeing to act quickly and agreeing on the action are two different things, particularly in a state dogged by billions of dollars of debt and partisan sniping about who is to blame and where to go next.
Michael Hoffman, Rauner’s senior adviser on the Quincy response, is urging all parties to keep a “laser focus” on Quincy and the well-being of its community. He dismissed concerns that lawmakers will want to micromanage — and delay — the plan.
“I’ve heard no one indicate that they’re not supportive of this,” Hoffman told The Associated Press last week. “We have proposed the plan, we studied this for a while, we moved as quickly as we could but also want to be diligent because we’re talking about a lot of taxpayer money, but I think there’s wide consensus that this is the right thing to do for our veterans.”
The report concludes that the home, 310 miles (500 kilometers) west of Chicago, be rebuilt to rid the 130-year-old campus of corroded piping and create state-of-the-art living conditions with the changing health care needs of veterans in mind. It includes a newly built residential facility housing 300 for up to $230 million; replacing all the underground plumbing for $2.2 million; drilling a groundwater well to be the home’s sole water source for up to $4.5 million; and the purchase and renovation of a nearby, vacant nursing home for additional space for up to $7 million.
To this point, lawmakers, particularly the Democratic-controlled Veterans Affairs Committees in the House and Senate, have demanded a plan from Rauner. Now that they have it, they’re not eager to surrender control.
“I personally would not want to give the governor $250 million to decide how he spends it on Quincy,” said Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat and Rauner’s harshest critic on the Quincy crisis. “I want to make sure that that’s detailed money and that that money can’t be ‘swept’ and used for other purposes.”
It won’t come in one fell swoop, nor from one source. The report lays out a timetable that doesn’t see the residential facility completed until 2024. And U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin noted last week that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs will reimburse 65 percent of state veterans-related construction.
But that doesn’t mean money isn’t necessary now. The initial focus is on $16 million coming from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs for reimbursement of past Illinois spending on veterans-related construction, including $4 million for a water treatment facility the state installed at Quincy in June 2016 to combat Legionella bacteria.
Cullerton has introduced legislation to ensure that the $16 million is earmarked for Quincy improvements. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it gets a lot of things moving,” Cullerton said.
Hoffman is counting on approval of a state budget — no small task in the current environment around the GOP governor and legislative Democrats. It includes $50 million Rauner set aside for Quincy so that there’d be something to get things moving when a remedial plan was OK’d. Although it would be in the operating budget, Hoffman said it would be available to finance first steps, such as the contract for a master planner the Capital Development Board expects to approve next week.
While Quincy is in the spotlight, the state operates three other veterans’ homes — in Anna, LaSalle and Manteno — and is struggling to complete one in Chicago. Not surprisingly, those homes need work. The report detailed $120 million in long-overdue maintenance at the other homes. One House member who served on the task forces that produced the report suggested if there’s $200 million to spend at Quincy, the state ought to commit to a larger capital plan to address other bricks-and-mortar needs as well.
Hoffman intends to confine the conversation to Quincy.
“We have been talking about deferred maintenance issues at our veterans’ homes and elsewhere and certainly would be open to conversations,” Hoffman said. “But I wouldn’t want to tie this project at Quincy to any other type of projects that could delay the process on this one.”