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Former KRMA director indicted on fraud charge

Editor's note: The story has been updated to include a copy of the indictment.

KANKAKEE — Richard G. Simms, the former executive director of the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency, was indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday in Springfield, charged with defrauding KRMA and the city of Kankakee’s Environmental Services Agency of more than $2 million.

According to the indictment, the alleged fraud occurred from 2014 through 2018.

The Daily Journal reported in March 2019 that Simms was being investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s office. The paper’s review of Simms’ dealings with KRMA began in November 2018.

KRMA is responsible for treating wastewater from its member municipalities: Kankakee, Bradley, Bourbonnais and Aroma Park. KRMA also treated wastewater from Manteno and Chebanse by intergovernmental agreement.

During this period, Simms was also the superintendent of Environmental Service Utility that serves as Kankakee’s public works and sewer system.

At the same time, Simms, 73, currently of Marietta, Ohio, owned and operated Simms Engineering LTD.

Simms retired from KRMA and Kankakee’s ESA positions in April 2018. He began his career with KRMA when the treatment plant was being built in 1987.

From 2014 through 2018, Simms received more than $2.5 million in salary and legitimate payments: approximately $1,124,288 from KRMA and approximately $1,594,585 from ESU, according to a news release from John C. Milhiser, U.S. District Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.

In addition, and independent of his salary and payments, the indictment alleges that Simms fraudulently received approximately $2.2 million — $768,000 from KRMA and $1,257,000 from ESU — as payment to Simms Engineering for software development by Plum Flower International.

Simms registered Plum Flower International with the State of Illinois in March 2014 purportedly to develop a software application for medical companies to track medical records.

The indictment alleges that although Simms did not have board approval or contracts with his engineering firm to develop software, he submitted fraudulent and inflated invoices to KRMA and ESU for software development. Simms allegedly circumvented KRMA’s invoice payment procedure by submitting invoices directly to its accounting firm. As a result, KRMA’s superintendent and administrative assistant did not approve and were unaware of the invoices.

It further alleges that from May 2014 through September 2018, Simms Engineering transferred more than $2 million to Plum Flower International, which represented more than 95 percent of its revenue during this time frame.

Plum Flower International used approximately $161,000 of the funds to pay another company to create a software application which they attempted to sell on the open market, the indictment alleges. The remaining funds were used for the personal benefit of Simms, according to investigators.

In a November 2018 Daily Journal story, Simms said 87.5 percent to 90 percent of the money for the software application passed through his firm to subcontractors, which he did not identify. He said the application was intended to operate the sewage treatment plant, allowing for reduced staffing.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Office of Inspector General conducted the investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene L. Miller is representing the government in the case prosecution.

The U.S. Clerk of the Court will set the date for Simms to appear in federal court in Urbana for arraignment.

If convicted, the offense of federal program fraud carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in prison.

Ice Valley Centre to open in September

KANKAKEE — The Ice Valley Centre Ice Arena will open mid-September, and that’s good news for local hockey players and figure skaters.

The rink at 1601 River Road in Kankakee has been shut down since spring, and Kankakee Valley Park District board was mulling over whether to open the facility this fall due as COVID-19 restrictions will limit the revenue it could generate.

“We have not had revenue at the rink, technically, since March,” said Dayna Heitz, executive director of the KVPD at this past week’s board meeting. “... We don’t have any revenue from there. Even with the [hockey] club, per month, we’re still going to be negative.”

The rink’s estimated electrical cost per month is $9,000 and total operational cost (including maintenance, staffing and other utilities) is $21,000 per month, and the hockey and skating programs will still leave the district with about $7,000 shortfall each month.

The Kankakee Youth Hockey Club provides approximately 75% of the rink’s monthly revenue, and Dave Verkler, KYHC treasurer and Erica Barton, KYHC president, were at the meeting to try to work out a deal to get the rink open. The KYHC sponsors several Coyote youth hockey teams and the Kankakee Irish high school club squad.

“We’ll partner with you to get the rink open for our kids,” Verkler said. “… If there’s a need for financial support, we’ll do that.”

Heitz said that there’s been a directive from the board that if there’s a loss, a facility can’t open. However, if the rink wasn’t to open, Ice Valley Centre could permanently lose a valued customer in the KYHC.

Board member Don Palmer said it’s about customer service and goodwill.

“Although I’m a numbers guy looking at the $7,000, I think we also have to look at it as an investment in our customers,” Palmer said. “And so I’m saying we must accommodate them moving forward.

“If we lose them permanently, then where are we? … They have options. You have to weigh your risks. Are we going to accommodate our best customer to create goodwill?”

The board agreed to go forward with opening the facility in September, and it could generate more revenues with some additional programs, including open skates and other events. But there are limitations.

“Everything is limited,” Heitz said. “We can only have 50 [people] inside the rink.”

Heitz said there was a misconception that the rink could operate at 20% capacity.

“It’s indoor-outdoor recreation guidelines we have to go with,” she said. “We have to stick with the 50 [people].”

Also, the KYHC and the board had to come to agreement on some workable terms for the contract to use the facility. It was agreed upon that the hockey club could pay its fee a month in advance, and there would be just a 2% late fee as opposed to 7%. The board also needs written verification on background screening, and a split of the cost of shutting down the rink if ordered to by the state.

The two sides agreed to hammer out a deal and present it to the board at the August board meeting.

The KYHC had been securing ice time for some of its skaters at rinks in Willowbrook and at the Midwest Training and Ice Center in Dyer, Ind. Now the Coyotes can return to their home ice.

“Our Coyotes typically don’t start practicing until after Labor Day anyway, so I’m comfortable with going ahead and starting mid-September,” Barton said. “That would give them some time to go ahead and get their gear and all of their stuff in order for us to start our programming.”

Youth hockey in Illinois follows guidelines from USA Hockey and Amateur Hockey Association Illinois which differ from the IHSA and IESA.

“There are stipulations,” Verkler said. “… Kids will be playing and practicing in the same groups and not intermingling among the squads. We’re here and ready to go.

“We stand with the park district together to get it open. … It’s important to get the facility open.”

Budget unrest continues, vote appears set

KANKAKEE — The political unrest regarding the delayed vote on the $27.2 million 2021 Kankakee budget continued Monday, but it appears a vote on the document will happen on Aug. 17.

At Monday’s Kankakee City Council meeting, some council members voiced concerns that the delayed budget could negatively effect a potential bond sale, which could further undermine the economic picture for the city.

The issue will be further discussed at Monday’s Budget Committee meeting. The meeting is held at Kankakee City Hall and is chaired by Alderman Mike O’Brien, D-2.

The council normally adopts its budget in the months of June or July.

This year, however, with the pandemic in place, municipal governments have been given an extension.

Municipalities have until 60 days after the pandemic declaration has been lifted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

O’Brien and other aldermen have stated the city should take time to evaluate what effect the pandemic has on the governmental revenues such as sales and property taxes. He contends more information can help prepare a more accurate budget.

Other council members, led by Carl Brown, D-7, Fred Tetter, D-7, and Cherry Malone-Marshall, D-1, contend the failure to adopt the budget hampers the city and could jeopardize pending bond sales.

Tetter noted the administration presented a balanced budget — it actually has a razor-thing $20,668 surplus — and he remains puzzled as to why it has not been brought up for vote.

The administration had failed to put the 54-page document up for the required 10-day inspection period, thus it could not be voted on at Monday’s meeting.

Aug. 17 will be the first time the budget can be voted on following that inspection period.

Tetter said the budget is becoming a political football of sorts.

“Let us be better than that,” he said near the conclusion of Monday’s meeting. “We are a better body that what we are showing right now.”

Brown said the Budget Committee had at least four meetings where the budget was the chief topic of conversation and anyone with questions or concerns had more than enough opportunity to voice them.

Concerning the special Budget Committee meeting, held on July 27 and which only five aldermen attended, Brown said he had no official notice the meeting was taking place.

He said he would not have been able to attend regardless due to a personnel matter, but he was upset that O’Brien did not reach out to notify committee members.

“I felt disrespected,” Brown said. “Committee members should hear about [a scheduled meeting] first.”

Malone-Marshall added personnel and political agenda make it difficult for council members to work together.

“I’m ashamed we are conducting business like this,” she said. “We need to do better.”

Private schools prepare for return to in-person learning

Private schools are preparing to welcome students back to classrooms in the fall but have different approaches when it comes to following state guidance on returning to school.

Grace Christian Academy Principal Aaron Most said the Kankakee school will be following Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines for returning to school “to the best of our ability.”

“When ISBE came out with guidance, we used that document heavily,” he said.

Students will attend class in-person for full eight-hour school days, but face masks, social distancing and temperature and symptoms checks will be required, Most said.

“We have small class sizes in the first place, so social distancing is nothing new or out of the ordinary,” he said.

The school had an enrollment last year of about 225 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. Class sizes range from seven to 25 students, with an average of 12 to 14 students.

Most said the school was moving toward a hybridization of classes even before the pandemic, particularly with using a learning management system that students would likely go on to use in a college setting.

“We wouldn’t skip a beat if we were required to transition [to e-learning] again,” he said.

There won’t be a fully remote option for students in the fall, but their classes will have online components. If a student needs to take time off from school because of an illness, they would be able to continue classes virtually until they return.

“The mission of the school is about developing relationships,” Most said. “We believe those are created best in person.”

He said some families have pulled their students out of school because they don’t feel safe going back yet, while others were concerned about the face mask policy.

“I don’t think anyone was angry with us,” he said. “They are just choosing what’s best for their family right now.”

Most added that he expects enrollment will be slightly down next year, which in turn will help to keep class sizes small and socially distanced.

“We are in the business of loving students,” he said. “When life resumes back to normal, we would love to have you back.”

Kankakee Trinity Academy will also welcome students back for full school days of in-person learning.

Principal Brad Prairie said the school will require temperature checks for everyone entering the building and install new water fountains for bottle fill-up only, in addition to enhanced cleaning efforts.

Desks will also be spaced out as much as possible, and students will utilize two separate entrances to the school. The junior high and high school students will be assigned to every other locker and have staggered passing periods.

Presently, the school is planning for face masks to be “optional but encouraged.”

Prairie noted that the school’s face mask policy might have to change, however, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit Gov. J.B. Pritzker filed against three private schools that announced they would not comply with certain guidelines.

“We don’t receive state funding, so we wanted to leave [the decision on face masks] up to the parents,” Prairie said.

Several public school districts in the area are implementing half days of in-person attendance. Prairie said KTA did not consider that option.

“We feel our students need to be in as close to a normal situation as possible,” he said. “A better education is provided face-to-face.”

Prairie added that KTA has a smaller enrollment than most public schools; enrollment last year was 292 students from preschool to 12th grade.

“A good amount of public school families have been calling to say we want our kid in school full time; e-learning for half a day isn’t for me,” he said.

Prairie said he received about 30 such inquiries in the last two weeks.

“Most parents know how last quarter went,” he said. “[E-learning] was unproductive for the most part.”

Similar to Grace Christian Academy, students would be able to continue classwork remotely if they or a member of their household tests positive for coronavirus, but there won’t be a fully remote learning option for the fall semester.

Prairie said the vast majority of concerns he has heard from parents were in regards to face masks; most said they wouldn’t want to send their children to school if masks are required all day. Other families have elected to return to homeschooling in light of the risks.

Prairie said he expects enrollment to be relatively the same next year, though there will be a drop in the number of international students. The school typically hosts 25 to 30 international students, but next school year it will have only eight that are continuing studies from last year and no new international students.

“It’s a crazy time,” Prairie said. “Who knows how this will end up? It’s in God’s hands.”