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Column: Funding to clean up Tinley Park Mental Health Center is a mystery, but Blue Island gets windfall

Originally Printed in the Daily Southtown

Questions about the status of state funding to clean up the former Tinley Park Mental Health Center property have led to revelations of a windfall for Blue Island.

It is unclear whether the state still intends to pay to demolish buildings and remove contaminants from the abandoned 280-acre site near 183rd Street and Harlem Avenue. Last year, lawmakers allocated $15 million in Rebuild Illinois money for the work.

State Rep. Tim Ozinga, R-Mokena, investigated whether unspent money earmarked for the work last year rolled over into this year’s allocation.

“Someone on our research and appropriations staff looked into it,” said Tim Pawula, Ozinga’s chief of staff.

Ozinga’s people could not find a line item that specified $15 million in funds for the derelict mental health center, which closed in 2012. But they did spy a comfy little carve out for the city of Blue Island on page 1,697 of the 3,088-page appropriations bill.

“The sum of $15,000,000, or so much thereof as may be necessary, is appropriated from the Build Illinois Bond Fund to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for a grant to the Village of Blue Island for costs associated with capital improvements,” according to the legislation.

To be clear, Blue Island is a city, not a village. Nonetheless, such a windfall should thrill residents of any municipality, hamlet or dorp.

“Our community often does not have access to the same level of economic resources as some of our neighboring more affluent suburban communities, so support from our state officials is vital in ensuring we can deliver for our residents,” Blue Island Mayor Fred Bilotto said in a statement in response to an inquiry.

Fifteen millions dollars is a lot of money to fix streets. Infrastructure was the top issue in the recent three-way mayoral race in Blue Island. Bringing home that much bacon is a huge achievement, especially if it came at the expense of Tinley Park.

The appropriations bill is Public Act 102-0017 and was previously Senate Bill 2800.

“If you look at Senate Bill 2800, it shows there is a few million for Blue Island for costs associated with capital improvements,” Tinley Park village manager Dave Niemeyer told me. “In last year’s bill there was $15 million for the mental health center, and that’s not in there.”

In his brief statement, Bilotto thanked the three state lawmakers who represent his community of 22,611. They are state Sen. Emil Jones III, D-Chicago, and state Reps. Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago and Bob Rita, D-Blue Island.

Rita also represents part of Tinley Park, which raises awkward questions. Why was Blue Island getting $15 million and what happened to the $15 million designated to clean up the Tinley Park Mental Health Center?

“To be clear: I have not and will not pit one city I represent against another,” Rita said in a statement in response to inquiries. “I believe all of our cities in the Southland have tens of millions of dollars in unmet needs for their infrastructure: roads and bridges, school buildings, water and sewer systems, and much more.”

Tinley Park is a village, not a city. Still, the mystery of the missing mental health center money should concern residents of every metropolis, megalopolis, town and borough.

Rita said in his statement that he had productive conversations Thursday with Ozinga and Tinley Park officials. Ozinga in May urged fellow lawmakers to approve a bill he introduced which sought to require the state to sell the former mental health center property. Legislators did not advance the proposal.

“Both Rep. Ozinga and I represent portions of Tinley Park,” Rita said. “We are both committed to finding a solution for state funding for clean up at the former Tinley Park Mental Health Center site.”

All is chummy between Rita and his new pal, Ozinga, he seemed to say. As for the mystery of the missing mental health center money, Rita seemed to point at finger at the administration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“I made that funding a priority in 2019 when the state’s capital construction program was approved, but the funding has not yet been released and provided for the project,” Rita said.

State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, did not respond to requests for comment. Hastings, who recently abandoned his quest for the Democratic nomination for Illinois secretary of state, had previously said the mental health center was his top legislative priority.

“I believe Sen. Hastings said he would guarantee they would get the cleanup money,” Pawula said. “He got the cleanup money but then it went elsewhere.”

Rita mentioned how gaming expansion he championed is generating revenue that is helping fund the Rebuild Illinois program.

“I am encouraged by the progress we’re seeing now to move ahead with new casinos and bring in more gaming dollars, but we have much more work to do,” Rita said. “I want to see a vibrant racetrack and a new casino in the south suburbs, and use those new dollars to inject life into our cities and neighborhoods.”

Niemeyer, the Tinley Park village manager, said he spoke Thursday with a representative of Ozinga.

“I said to him, I’m concerned about Tinley Park,” Niemeyer said. “If the legislature decides there’s some project in Blue Island that’s important, that’s their business. We’ve been trying to get something done with this mental health center for 10 years.”

Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s press secretary, indicated it was up to lawmakers to explain what happened to the $15 million appropriated but unspent in 2020 to clean up the Tinley Park Mental Health Center.

“Member driven capital project appropriation line items are compiled and written into the bill by members of the General Assembly since they are best informed about critical needs in the communities they live in and represent,” she said in response to an inquiry. “If any changes have been made to specific line items, lawmakers who worked on the bills would be the best people to answer why.”

For those keeping score, Rita and Pritzker pointed fingers at each other, Ozinga is a sleuth who uncovered a mess, Hastings is mum and Bilotto is thrilled to get $15 million in state money to fix up his town.

Then again, for now that money is nothing more than a paragraph in a 3,088-page appropriation. If Blue Island doesn’t spend that money this year, there’s no guarantee it will be there next year.

Just ask Tinley Park.

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