Tuesday 21st May 2019

Springfield fiddles while Illinois cities burn

Op-Ed: Springfield fiddles while Illinois cities burn

Danville store closing
A store in Danville, Illinois, closing after 120 years in business. (Daniel Schwen | Wikimedia via Creative Commons)

The City of Danville’s struggles aren’t all that different from those of downstate communities across Illinois. Danville has seen its population drop by more than 20 percent from its peak last century. Residents’ earnings, adjusted for inflation, have fallen by more than 9 percent since the year 2000.

And manufacturing, once a staple of the community, has declined significantly. Gone are the General Electric, General Motors and Hyster factories and the 7,000 manufacturing jobs they provided.

But unlike so many other unfortunate downstate communities, Danville has found a way to persevere. It has diversified its economy and fought to attract new development.

Today, the city is host to many smaller industrial companies that alone provide 5,200 jobs. And companies like WatchFire, a maker of LED electronic signs and billboards, provide a solid jobs base for the city.

Those changes have been necessary to keep people and businesses from moving right next door. Danville is just three miles away from the Indiana border, where sales and property taxes are much lower and where the state is friendlier to businesses.

But Danville’s ability to stay competitive is in jeopardy. Decades of state mandates created by politicians in Springfield have pushed up costs, taxes and debts in the city to unsustainable levels.

And those state mandates have negative effects far beyond Danville. They overwhelmingly favor local bureaucracies over residents. They give some government unions the power to strike and others the benefit of binding arbitration laws. They enforce expensive prevailing wages that drive up the cost of public works and infrastructure improvements.

And most of all, they offer government worker retirement benefits that are no longer affordable to the residents that pay for them.

Cities simply have no power to control the costs that Springfield piles on.

The situation deeply frustrates Danville mayor Scott Eisenhauer: “Springfield makes the rules but localities have to pay for them.”

The budget cuts he’s had to make over the years to manage mandates have negatively affected Danville: “It has really started to impact simple capital purchases. It has impacted our staffing levels to pay the pensions. All those cuts hurt everything.”

Mayor Eisenhauer is far from the only local official that’s had to make hard choices. The General Assembly’s failures have put city officials across the state between a rock and hard place.

Many cities are facing ruin, no matter what their choices have been. They’re either at the brink of bankruptcy through unfunded pensions or have lost people and businesses due to high taxes and fewer services. The most unfortunate cities are suffering both.

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