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Backyard Brawls

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 4:59 a.m. CDT

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, Nov. 13:

(MCT) — Months into Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to shut down a handful of obsolete state-run facilities, the task is proving difficult. It is taking longer and costing more than expected, in part because defenders of the status quo are putting up a ferocious fight.

A southern Illinois judge has ordered the state to keep prisons open while it negotiates with AFSCME, the public employee union that opposes the closings. Among the facilities left open under the ruling is the half-empty Tamms Correctional Center, which is located in the county where the judge serves.

An arbitrator ruled last month that the state can proceed with prison closings, finding that safety issues raised by AFSCME have been addressed and that Quinn had held up his end of the negotiations. Despite losing in arbitration, AFSCME has asked the southern Illinois judge to continue to block the prison closings. The union claims it has the right to enter into still another form of arbitration.

The uncertainty promoted by the union fight is creating a serious problem. Staffers at some facilities are retiring or transferring to jobs at other state institutions, assuming their workplaces will eventually close. That’s making it more difficult to operate the targeted facilities.

Opponents have complicated the shutdown of state-run developmental centers that serve people with disabilities. The governor proposed closing the Jacksonville Developmental Center and moving its residents to other institutions or to community-based care.

Also complicating matters: AFSCME is demanding wage increases in contract negotiations with the Quinn administration. In a state that is so deeply in debt, wage demands will create more pressure to close more institutions — likely putting more AFSCME employees out of work.

Illinois has to put its tax revenue to the very best use. That means closing obsolete prisons. It means making better use of community-based care.

Other states have had spectacular results with community care, giving the disabled a much better quality of life. A recent story by Chicago Tribune reporter Monique Garcia highlighted some of the successes — and challenges — when Jacksonville residents had a chance to move into less restrictive new homes.

But local officials in Jacksonville have pushed back. They say the state is creating unsafe conditions for residents during the extended effort to close the center by contracting out nursing and other necessary services to fill vacancies as the facility’s staff has moved on. The state recently postponed the closing date of Jacksonville until Nov. 21.

These transitions need to be done safely ... but they need to be done. Give Quinn credit for taking on the challenge. The bottom line on these backyard brawls: Unions and local communities are intent on preserving these institutions, but the state will be in much better position to serve its citizens and its workers when it completes these changes. This state is broke. It has to be repaired.

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