CHRISTOPHER — There isn’t much that's exciting about replacing sewer lines, but for small communities throughout the region, such infrastructure improvements are a big deal, and they're not cheap.
More Southern Illinoisans call rural communities home than booming population centers. These towns, comprised at times of a few hundred to a few thousand people, do not often have the tax base to complete large infrastructure improvements, but that does not remove the need, local leaders say. This is where programs like the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants come in.
Gary Bartolotti has been Christopher's mayor for more than 30 years and said the city has been made use of CDGBs for the last 20 years — in fact, he said the city has replaced 90 percent of its water lines with such funding. It was announced last month that the city was awarded $388,493 to replace some of Christopher’s sewer mains. Bartolotti said Christopher, like many area towns, would not be able to complete such a project on its own.
“Without federal help, these small communities would really be in trouble,” Bartolotti said.
This concern became real last month when the White House's Office of Management and Budget released its, “blueprint” for part of the 2018 federal budget. In its proposal, the OMB announced that it would cut roughly $6 billion from HUD, including such line items as CDGB funding as well as other infrastructure-building programs.
In the blueprint, the OMB said it would be putting these programs back to states to manage and fund.
“In Illinois there’s not a backup,” Alene Carr, executive director for the Southeastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission in Harrisburg, said. Simply put, the state does not have the funds to make up the difference. Carr and her team help write grants and help communities plan for future development. She said news like this makes doing her job even harder.
“It is a hard wait and see game,” she said, adding that it is difficult to plan when it's unknown if the funds will actually be there down the line. This can be discouraging for some communities, she said.
Sesser was also awarded a CDBG in the amount of $450,000 to replace parts of its sewer system, and Jason Ashmore, the community’s mayor, said without federal dollars, these projects wouldn’t happen. He said the tax base just is not there. In turn, his town would have to resort to increasing utility prices.
“If we had to do all this on our own, our customers would be paying probably five to six times, and that’s just an approximate guess, of what they pay now,” Ashmore said. “I think that would only address half of it.”
Bartolotti echoed this statement.
“We can’t do it on our own,” he said. In his opinion, Bartolotti said as the population grows — he pointed out it has done so by leaps and bounds since he was born — the federal government needs to grow, just a little bit, with it.
Nothing in the OMB blueprint is set in stone — it is simply a proposal. But if any of it becomes a reality, it could deal serious damage to the region.
“We would go back in time,” Ashmore said. He said if funding is cut for these infrastructure programs, he believes residents would be driving on gravel roads and potentially could lose sanitary sewer systems.
This isn’t far off by Carr’s estimation.
“You would have failing infrastructure for small communities. You would have broken water lines on a daily basis that can’t get repaired,” Carr said.
In all of this, Bartolotti finds Donald Trump’s values to be conflicting. On the one hand there is the promise of building up the country from within, while simultaneously cutting funding to organizations that do just that.
“If you say U.S.A. first, then it should be U.S.A. first,” Bartolotti said.