CAHOKIA, Ill. (AP) — Voters in Cahokia, Centreville and Alorton will be asked in November to decide whether they want to merge their communities and become one city.
Leaders cited severe population decline in each community as the reason for the merger. One larger city would help attract more federal funding to help pay for infrastructure, schools, public safety and other improvements.
“The numbers show that there has been a gradual decline over the last couple of years, and I think right now we’ve reached a critical point if we’re going to salvage our cities to get some help to maintain what we have, and I think the citizens will benefit from it because the numbers don’t lie,” Cahokia Mayor Curtis McCall Jr. said.
The Cahokia Village Board last month approved a measure to share research costs related to the possible consolidation.
In the March primary, voters in Alorton and Centreville approved a referendum that would consolidate the two towns into a new city that would have been called Alcentra. Now those citizens, along with people in Cahokia, will be asked to vote Nov. 3 on another referendum that would add Cahokia to the mix. The new city would be named Cahokia Heights.
Cahokia, Centreville and Alorton have each witnessed a decrease in residents for the past 10 years. According to population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 360 residents have left Centreville and about 100 have left Alorton. In Cahokia, the largest of the three cities, population has dropped by about 1,300 residents.
Among cities in St. Clair County, Cahokia had the most severe population decline, with a lost of about 9% of its residents in the past 10 years.
Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall Sr., who’s the leader of the proposed merger and the father of Cahokia’s mayor, said the cities’ declining population is the root of their problems. About 31% of residents in Cahokia live below the federal poverty line, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In Centreville and Alorton, about 50% percent of residents live below the poverty line.
“What you’re seeing in these cities is what you’re seeing in urban Black cities all across the country,” said McCall Sr., who grew up in the area. “With the loss of population comes the loss of federal funding that will help with schooling, infrastructure, hospitals and public safety. All these federal dollars that you get based on your population, which average out $1,500-$1,600 per person, we’re missing.
“Those are dollars that you can use to better the lives of your community. The purpose of the merger is to stop the financial bleeding,” McCall Sr. said. “When we can consolidate those three governments into one government while at the same time increasing our population, that would increase the amount of funds we get.”
McCall Sr. said the mayors of the three cities met two years ago and decided they had to do something. “I believe that before we ask someone else to do something for us whether it’s on the county level, the state level or the federal level, one must look within themselves first.”
Alorton Mayor Jo Ann Reed and Centreville Mayor Marius “Mark” Jackson publicly backed the initial referendum to merge their cities last spring.
In an interview, Jackson said the merger would be the best thing that could happen for Centreville.
Residents in north Centreville have experienced extensive flooding issues with little help from local government, which has prompted a visit from Sen. Tammy Duckworth and a lawsuit against the city, township and public officials filed on behalf of some residents.
“Flooding in the area is something that’s been inherited,” said Jackson, one of the defendants in the lawsuit. “And it’s not just from the previous administration. It’s almost been for everybody that’s ever been in office. It’s been an ongoing problem. “
Jackson said the problem has worsened over the years.
“That area was one of the few areas where Blacks could settle early on, and so when they built their homes over there of course there was no infrastructure, “ Jackson said. “Back then Blacks needed a place to settle and they had to get what they could get. And now, you can’t build a house or home or anything without the infrastructure.
“There was never any infrastructure over there, and now the homes are built there and no infrastructure. It’s really no place for the water to go.”
Jackson said fixing streets, roads and sewers is expensive, and “we were just hoping that in one time or another, that Congress would pass an infrastructure bill to reinvest some money into these small, small communities that can’t take care of themselves.
“We can take care of the basic things, but footing the bill for infrastructure is something that we can’t handle, even some of the bigger cities probably wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
McCall Sr., another defendant in the lawsuit, said the flooding issues are a result of poor infrastructure that goes beyond local government’s control.
He said the merger would help bring in more federal money because of the increase in population.
Mayor Reed could not be reached for comment for this article.
McCall Jr. said the Cahokia Village Board’s vote was an agreement to share costs of research. “Because you have to do research in regards to how much debt, the amount of revenue that comes in the city, utilities and just all of that stuff, so we’re all going to share the costs.”
McCall Jr. said the research expenses will be split between Cahokia, Alorton, Centreville, Centreville Township, Commonfields of Cahokia, and Cahokia School District 187. McCall said he doesn’t yet know the cost.
Research costs for the Alcentra merger totaled about $14,000, which was split evenly among Centreville, Alorton, Commonfields of Cahokia and Centreville Township. Commonfields is the public water district for the area.
The consolidation of the three cities, a campaign that has been advertised as “Better Together,” was presented to residents earlier this year as plans for merging Alorton and Centreville were introduced. The addition of Cahokia to the merger starts the second phase of the consolidation.
The third and fourth phases, which include dissolving Centreville Township and adding Commonfields of Cahokia to the newly formed Cahokia Heights, are planned to be included in future referendums or legislation.
“We felt that we wanted to reach Alorton and Centreville, and Cahokia’s huge, so we felt like we wouldn’t have the manpower to reach all the citizens if we did it with all three cities at once, so we can truly take the time to educate the citizens on why this merger is important,” McCall Sr. said.
If the merger is approved, elections for the newly formed city government would be held in April 2021.
Mayor McCall said he fully supports the plan, although it would likely result in the loss of his job.
“I would have to step down from my position as a mayor, and that wasn’t an easy choice to make because I love serving the citizens in the village of Cahokia,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it was a necessary decision to make.
“If it’s going to help the residents of Cahokia, Centreville or Alorton, then I’m all for it because right now, our communities are dying. These are communities of color and we need to do what we need to do to help these communities survive.”
Antonio Baxton, a business development consultant who has been leading the research into the proposed consolidation, said the next step in the process is providing financial summaries for residents before the November election. Baxton, who’s on the board for the Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerce, said his current findings are based on looking at each city’s financial reports.
“We found out that under the elimination of the township government, it would save each household about $430 a year because they wouldn’t have to pay taxes under Centreville Township,” said Baxton, who was raised in Centreville and now lives in O’Fallon. “Right now, we’re going through the process of looking at the financial impact to consolidate services, city hall and other things.”
“We’re working on looking at the financial statements of each city and working with auditors to come up with different ideas for how to increase revenues in each city.”
Some residents say they would like to see more information about the proposed merger.
Tom Stahl, who has lived in Cahokia for 10 years, said doing research is a step in the right direction. He wants more concrete information about how the merger will specifically affect residents.
“I want a plan,” said Stahl, a Republican who’s running for St. Clair County board. “Something in legalese. There are a lot of questions with it, and for as long as I’ve been covering politics, and it doesn’t really matter who it is, I often find that what’s first stated is actually not the real plan.
“But if that research is going on, then that’s great news. That persuades me a little bit more to be for the merger because now I see that there seems to be a process for going forward.”
Stahl said he is still undecided. “There’s got to be rules and regulations allowing this, so I’ve been wanting something in writing. I don’t want anything in rhetoric. I want it in writing. I want to know the details.”
Lauren Rodgers Schroeder, who has lived in Cahokia with her mother since the 1990s, said she wasn’t aware of Cahokia being involved in the merger. She works as a secretary for Maplewood Elementary School in Cahokia.
“Just from the school side of it, I would be a little cautious (about the merger) just because I know we already get a whole lot of kids from East St. Louis, so it seems like it would be even more kids and there would be busing issues, behavior issues that we would have them kind of contend with,” Rodgers Schroeder said.
“Our classes are already overcrowded. Most of our rooms for the entire year sit at close to 30 in a room whereas in East St. Louis schools, there are like 15 or 16, so I just kind of like wonder how many are actually living in those other areas (Alorton, Centreville) that probably shouldn’t even be our students,” she said. ”I just think there’s a whole lot of planning to go into it to accommodate everybody.”
Rodgers Schroeder and her mother have had extensive flooding in their home for a couple of months. She recently moved temporarily to Fairview Heights because of the flood damages at her Cahokia home.
“Residents here in Cahokia and Centreville have reached out to them about the issue, so I’m just surprised that now all of sudden they want to use that as a basis for it, but if that’s their intention, then I’m all for it,” Rodgers Schroeder said.
McCall Sr. said he’s now focusing on getting more citizens like Rodgers Schroeder informed about the merger before November. However, due to COVID-19, he said that his efforts have been limited.
McCall Sr. said the spread of COVID-19 and the accompanying restrictions in Illinois are having an impact on Phase Two. “Now, due to COVID-19, we’re not able to have these town hall mass meetings like we did in Centreville and Alorton, so we’re having to redirect how we’re going to get the message out in Cahokia, “ he said.
“We’re having to go door-to-door, and it’s a bit time consuming, but we’re hoping that will help keep citizens informed until the November election.”
Donna Ayers, a local activist, has organized a few meetings at Calvary Church in Cahokia to inform more people about the proposed merger. She said the new COVID-19 restrictions in the metro-east have altered her plans in scheduling another meeting, but she’s working on making flyers about the proposed merger to pass out to residents.
“First I was against it, because I was worried about taxes, but after looking at how much it’ll save homeowners and the population number, I believe that when we merge, we will make a big change, and everyone in the community will be involved,” she said. “It wouldn’t just be the McCalls. It would be everyone, and that’s what it’s going to take to get Cahokia back. It’s going to take all of us.”
Ayers said she learned from listening to engineers that Cahokia needs new sewers. “With all these politicians, regardless of what side they’re on, they should see that we’re important.” Ayers said. “We’re just like everyone else, and we deserve to have a better living here. Hopefully this can lead to some grants coming in so people won’t leave.”
McCall Jr., the Cahokia mayor, said he understands how his and his father’s involvement might dissuade people from supporting the merger, like it did for Ayers until she changed her mind. However, he wants to assure residents that the merger is about how it will benefit citizens and not the McCalls.
“These communities were financially dying,” McCall Sr. said. “No longer could we afford to keep our heads in the sand, and we couldn’t wait for others to bail us out.
“We believe that this is the first step in bringing a good quality of life to these citizens in just the basic necessities and good infrastructure, whether it’s roads, whether it’s sewers, you know all the things that other cities take for granted throughout America, many of the cities in urban areas have to fight and struggle for.”
Source: Belleville News-Democrat, https://bit.ly/2QEp8wT