FOX LAKE – Wayne Blake was ready to head to Springfield to voice his support for Fox Waterway Agency to senators Monday when he learned Senate Bill 2696, which would dissolve the agency, had been pulled from the Agriculture and Conservation Senate committee agenda.
Blake, chairman of the Fox Lake-based Fox Waterway Agency, said while the bill was pulled from the committee's Monday agenda, it could be reintroduced at a later time.
A spokeswoman with Senator Terry Link's office confirmed the bill had been pulled, but declined to elaborate. Link proposed the bill, which is co-sponsored by by Senator Julie Morrison.
Link represents Gurnee, Waukegan and Vernon Hills among other Lake County communities. Morrison represents Buffalo Grove and North Chicago, among other county towns.
Blake said he was "shocked" when he learned about the bill.
"No one's letting our guard down," Blake said, adding that he plans to meet with Senator Pamela Altoff of McHenry on Friday. "We won the battle, but not the war."
The jobs of Blake and 14 other agency employees could be at stake as legislators consider the bill, which would dissolve the Fox Waterway Agency, and place the Chain O' Lakes and Fox River under the care of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Fox Waterway Agency will host a public meeting to discuss the bill at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lakefront Park, 71 Nippersink Blvd., Fox Lake.
The Fox Waterway Agency is responsible for dredging the lakes, collecting user fees and performing rescues, according to agency employees. The agency typically partners with the 27 municipalities under their jurisdiction if they have the people and equipment available, said Rob Rinkenberger, superintendent and employee of 17 years.
"They say we're a redundant agency, and I'm not sure where that comes from," Blake said. "We were created in 1983 because the system was too big and they didn't have the manpower [to maintain the lakes]."
Link said said the bill will save money by abolishing and consolidating a unit of local government, similar to legislation he's proposed in the past.
"I'm always advocating for units of local government to be more efficient without loss of work quality and enjoyment of the area," Link said.
Blake said his agency operates on grants, not tax dollars, so he's not sure how dissolving the agency would save the state money. Rinkenberger said agency jobs don't receive state pensions.
Link said, "They charge a user fee and use federal and state money to operate this. That's still our taxpayer dollars.
"I don't think it would create jobs or take jobs away from Lake County. They only have a dozen people out there. I don't know where anyone lives."
The Fox Waterway Agency has 15 employees, most of whom live in Lake County and have worked at the agency long-term, said Ron Barker, executive director, who's worked there eight years.
Blake said Fox Waterway Agency is responsible for removing silt and keeping the lakes from becoming overgrown. He said the lakes would probably be cared for just as well under the IDNR, but he's not sure. If left unkept, silt and other natural occurrences would eventually turn the lakes to swamp, Blake said.
Link said he's working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"They are working with me to make sure this would work, alter and change some things," he said.
Arlan Juhl, director of water resources for the IDNR, said his department's official stance is neutral. He said the Fox Waterway Agency was created because locals wanted greater say in how the Chain O' Lakes was managed.
Juhl said if IDNR absorbed the responsibilities of Fox Waterway Agency, they would need staff levels similar to what the agency has now. Juhl does not know if it's possible to hire the people at Fox Waterway Agency should the agency be dissolved, he said.
Link said, "I'd like to see a lot of agencies abolished. The point is – people are about cutting anything, but not in their neighborhood. Every neighbor's bad except my neighbor."
Link said he has not heard from Lake County mayors about the issue.
Rinkenberger, of Long Lake, said the agency has received "overwhelming support from the public."
On Monday, there were 898 signed witness slips opposing the legislation and 11 in favor on the Illinois General Assembly website, my.ilga.gov.
Kristine Pearson, project and permitting specialist at Fox Waterway Agency and employee of 15 years, said, "A lot of licensed captains work here. The fire department calls here for search and rescue on the lakes."
Barker said, "We quietly do the work that needs to be done. We call ourselves the bleeding waterway blue, and respond to all situations at all hours."
To track Senate Bill 2696, visit the Illinois General Assembly website at my.ilga.gov.