Editorial | Taxpayers taken for a ride

Editorial | Taxpayers taken for a ride

A new leasing arrangement screams incompetence by state officials.

The verdict has been rendered on a suspect lease of a former Springfield furniture store that state officials signed, and it does not reflect well on those who have the responsibility for making the deal.

The good news, if it can be called that, is that investigators from the auditor general's office did not find the five-year, $2.4 million building lease the product of political or personal influence.

The bad news — and it can definitely be called that — is that the touted savings generated by proponents of the deal are illusory and that state officials did not follow the rules in finalizing the lease arrangement.

So it looks as though taxpayers have been taken for an expensive ride by those charged with carrying out state law. But what else is new?

The controversy over the leasing arrangement involving the former Barney's Furniture store building in Springfield began about a year ago, when terms of the deal became public.

State officials defended the agreement, stating that they needed to move documents stored at the former women's prison in Dwight because the storage area there was unsafe.

They ended up signing a lease with a Chicago-based organization, Climate Controlled Holdings, that is linked to Illinois' one-time King of Clout, political heavyweight, millionaire and convicted felon Bill Cellini.

On the surface, the deal looked suspicious. That's because the state could have bought the building for less than it was spending on rent.

Legislators, for a variety of reasons, looked askance at the deal and sensibly asked for an investigation by the auditor general.

Here's what's odd about it.

State officials were looking to complete two leasing deals — one for storage of Illinois Department of Human Services records that were at Dwight and the other to support a communications support center for the Department of Innovation and Technology.

The DHS paper storage was the smaller of the two deals. So, officials at the Department of Central Management Services made two separate deals but subsequently switched the leases after they were awarded.

That means the DHS-paper storage deal intended for a smaller facility went to the older, larger Barney's building, while the communications center was sidetracked to the smaller facility.

The bottom line is that bidders sought one project based on the requirements of that project and ended up with something entirely different.

Investigators said that "not only were the agencies changed, the purposes of the leases were changed, the structural layouts were changed and the prices offered were changed."

That looks like a pretty screwy way for the state to do business. Not surprisingly, legislative Democrats and Republicans were disturbed by the revelations. Democratic state Sen. Andy Manar questioned the extreme expense of storing paper records, calling it "unnecessary."

Republican state Rep. David McSweeney characterized it as another in a long line of examples of "wasteful spending."

A Central Management Services spokesman said his department "has taken steps to tighten up the leasing process." Well, that's good.

But the reaction from the state's Chief Procurement Office was too lawlerly to be reasssuring. It defended the process by noting that there was no illegal — meaning criminal — conduct.

The issue is not about whether state officials who handled the leasing arrangement were engaged in criminal conspiracy. It's about the wise use of scarce taxpayer dollars and adherence to the state's own standards — in other words, competence or incompetence. The auditor general's report raises too many questions about the state's irregular procedures to have much confidence in what occurred.

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