MOUNT STERLING, Ill. — A group of supporters from the Western Illinois Correctional Center gave a round of applause to the Mount Sterling City Council as a sign of appreciation Monday.
The council moments earlier had voted 6-0 to keep water flowing at the prison and continue good-faith negotiations over past-due water bills with the state, which has operated without a budget for nearly a year.
After a $55,000 payment for November 2015 arrived Monday, the state owes the city of 1,900 residents about $313,000 for water service.
More than 50 prison supporters filled the Police Training Center, where the City Council holds its meetings.
Mike Oeser, a chief steward with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3567 and a worker at the prison, said the city would have been fighting a losing battle had it taken on the state by itself, putting jobs in the community at risk.
“(The state) never came out and directly threatened, but they obviously would have put together a secondary plan,” Oeser said. “What if the water was shut off? They would move the inmates out, and then we would have gone into layoff and recall rights. We’d all be displaced.”
Supporters warned the council of potential economic ramifications if the facility were to close. The Illinois Department of Corrections did not directly answer whether the facility would shut down if water was disconnected.
“In my mind, there was just no option for an immediate shut-off, and playing the game with the state and risking their livelihoods,” said Mayor Dane Flesner. “They make the community just as good as the rest of us make this community, and they’re very important for us.”
Philip Krupps, president of the Brown County Development Corp., urged the City Council to explore the state’s Vendor Payment Participation Program.
“There are other entities within the state that are using that with very good success,” Krupps said.
The program allows vendors to sell the debt. Vendors receive 90 percent of the debt from private equity investors, and when the state pays the debt, the remaining 10 percent is provided. The investors receive any interest on the debt from the state.
Third Ward Alderman Jim Jennings said he initially opposed selling the debt because he believed it would cost the city money to set up.
“If we don’t lose anything at all, I wouldn’t mind supporting it,” Jennings said. “I told you I was against it, and I may be changing my mind right here, right now, with new information.”
Retired prison employee Matt Bradbury, a former mayor, warned the council of the dangers guards could face were the water service to be disconnected.
“We have violent criminals in our facility in this community, and when they find out the water is shut off, first they’re going to be mad at the city,” Bradbury said. “Then their eyes are going to turn because they’re going to be mad at the state. And then their eyes are going to look right at the staff members with the badges on.”