ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK
Illinois communities such as Georgetown are coming to grips with a backlog of infrastructure repairs that will mean higher bills for ratepayers who are already dealing with this summer’s income tax hike.
Next month, Georgetown residents will begin paying at least $8 per month more on their water and sewer bill to help the east-central Illinois city continue to fund infrastructure improvements. The situation is the result of past councils failing to properly analyze system costs, according to Alderman Darren Alexander.
Other nearby cities are facing rate hikes by water companies of between 47 and 125 percent, Alexander said, adding that Georgetown owns its water and sewer systems.
“I think people are starting to realize that the council members who are making these decisions live in the community as well, and we have to pay these increases,” Alexander told Illinois News Network. “We’re not a board of directors sitting in some high-rise building and saying, ‘Hey, we don’t care about the people. Raise their rates $50 a month.’ “
The city has submitted its infrastructure plan to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for financing, according to Alexander, and city officials have tried to get the word out about repair plans to residents through social media.
“We haven’t tried to hide anything,” he said. “We haven’t heard any complaining at all.”
Among the key projects is taking care of the city’s water tower, which requires sandblasting and recoating every 20 years, Alexander said. That project will cost $300,000.
Another priority is replacement of water meters in the community that are 20 to 30 years old. New meters will be more secure, more accurate and will allow the city to calculate residential water use electronically, Alexander said, adding that the upgrades should pay for themselves within eight to 10 years.
But the initial cost will be about $650,000, he said. The total cost of the planned water and sewer upgrades is estimated at about $6 million.
Prior to the current council’s rate adjustments and infrastructure plans, sewer rates had not been studied or adjusted since 1988, Alexander said. Typically, those costs are adjusted annually to deal with inflation, which can run at 1 to 3 percent per year, he said.
The new rate schedule should allow the city’s water and sewer funds to pay back the general fund for past expenses and provide funding for future projects, Alexander said.
A 2014 report card issued to Illinois by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the state a “C-minus” for the condition of its infrastructure. Among other things, the report found that 42 percent of the major roads in Illinois were in a poor or mediocre state, while drinking water and sewer systems needed $36.5 billion in improvements over the next two decades.
“Certainly, the investment needs to increase,” Becky Moylan, the ASCE’s spokeswoman, told Illinois News Network. The society doesn’t take a position on whether that should mean raising revenues or simply diverting funds from other government programs, she said.
Illinois’ neglect of its infrastructure mirrors the nation as a whole, which was given a grade of “D-minus.” Among the key challenges for states such as Illinois is that for a long time infrastructure issues were simply not getting a lot of attention, Moylan said.
State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, who at one time had Georgetown in his district, said state lawmakers regularly hear from communities explaining their infrastructure needs or looking for state or federal assistance to help get things done.
“There’s not a municipality in the state that if you came to them and asked them, ‘Hey, could you use some help with infrastructure needs or do you have projects to do?’ isn’t going to be able to hand you a list,” Righter told Illinois News Network.
State lawmakers are discussing a bill that would fund statewide capital projects, he said, but finding the money to accomplish that goal will be a challenge.
“I don’t know how far down the road we are on details,” Righter said.
The two-year state budget impasse that was broken over the summer contributed to the state’s infrastructure problems, he said, adding that the public’s perceptions of state government will make solutions difficult going forward.
“Among legislators in Springfield, we just approved an income tax increase to balance the state budget,” Righter said, and lawmakers are wary about turning around and asking constituents for additional funds for something else.
“My Democratic colleagues don’t seem to get that taxpayers don’t trust Springfield,” he said. A day doesn’t go by when constituents open a newspaper and see an example of how money is being wasted in Springfield, according to the state senator.
Righter’s advice to local governments seeking to deal with infrastructure issues is to explain the situation to constituents and ask them about the best ways to come up with the needed funds.
“I would say the best advice I could give … is that you’ve got to talk to the public, talk to the taxpayers, and explain to them what the needs are …” he said. “Even in the end, our constituents – they want to be listened to.”