If you had billions of dollars to invest in public improvements in the south suburbs, where would you begin?
Some might say the top priority is to fix the region’s highways and bridges. Others might want to divvy up the funds and let towns replace some of their aging water mains, repave residential streets or rebuild schools and other public buildings.
“What would you prioritize?” asked Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago. “What are the most immediate things that can be fixed?”
Sims hosted a Southland Capital Town Hall Monday at South Suburban College in South Holland. Dozens of municipal leaders, educators, social service providers and others from the region attended. Sims sought input on needs that legislators might be able to address if lawmakers this month agree on a potential capital improvements bill.
“We want to make sure our thoughts match our communities’ desires,” Sims said.
Illinois hasn’t had a capital bill in a decade and there was no point in trying to work on one when former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly were locked in a budget impasse for more than two years.
But it’s a new day in Springfield with Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Democrats also hold veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Lawmakers who represent the south suburbs want their constituents to be ready with requests to fund specific projects in the event a capital bill is passed.
“We’re working diligently in Springfield every day to — as they used to say — bring home the bacon,” said Rep. Nicholas Smith, D-Chicago.
The South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association has compiled a list of more than $3.5 billion in projects needed throughout the south suburbs. Blue Island needs $1.5 million to replace a water tower. Calumet City needs $10 million to repair its sanitary sewer system.
Chicago Heights needs $6.5 million to resurface local streets. Country Club Hills needs $1.5 million to make sidewalks accessible for people with disabilities. Flossmoor needs about $3 million for storm sewers that would reduce flooding in a Metra railroad viaduct during heavy rains.
Harvey needs $25 million to replace water mains. Homewood needs $5 million to improve truck access at the Halsted Street interchange with I-80/I-294. Towns need money to rebuild fire stations and village halls, to improve public transportation, to install streetlights and bicycle paths. The SSMMA list is 34 pages long.
Many projects address critical needs, such as safe roads and drinking water, said Kristi DeLaurentiis, SSMMA executive director.
“With the lack of infrastructure funding, we’re putting our citizenry at risk,” she said.
Bloom Township Highway Commissioner Joseph P. Stanfa said towns have neglected roads, water and sewer systems due to a lack of funds.
“Some of these are in desperate shape,” Stanfa said.
State or federal funding is needed because area residents already are paying too much in property taxes, he said. Everyone deserves safe roads and water systems regardless of their ZIP code, he said.
“Just because the people in Ford Heights don’t have the money that Barrington has doesn’t mean they’re not just as important,” Stanfa said, drawing applause from the standing-room-only crowd that filled the room.
Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims, D-Posen, said municipalities are stronger when they work together to seek funding for regional improvements, as opposed to projects within a community.
“We all know the Southland is in need of a lot of things,” she said. “We have to figure out how we can work together so everybody gets a piece of the pie.”
Lynwood Mayor Eugene Williams said lawmakers should funnel state motor-fuel tax revenues to towns so local officials could repave streets and make other repairs.
“That’s where our communities will see the difference,” Williams said.
Rep. Debbie Meyers-Martin, D-Olympia Fields, said investments in public roads, water and sewer systems often spur private business developments.
“When you do infrastructure it helps economic development,” she said.
Representatives of social-service agencies said the budget impasse forced many providers to cease operations. Sheryl Homan, CEO of Chicago-based Community Assistance Programs, addressed disparities in healthcare facilities and other resources between the Southland and other parts of the Chicago area.
“You can see a stark difference from the North Side to the South Side,” Holman said. “That should not be. Some people are suffering the consequences of their environment.”
Representatives of elementary, high school and higher education addressed the need to fund repairs for school buildings and other facilities. Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State University in University Park, said during the budget impasse GSU had to use funds set aside for maintenance to cover operations.
“It makes no sense to let property deteriorate,” Maimon said. “Governors State University has not had a new building since 2002.”
Capital needs throughout the region are great, town hall participants said. Sims, the state senator, urged local officials to prioritize projects that are in the greatest need of funding.
“We need to know in short order what direction we should go in,” Sims said. “If there are asks out there, make them.”
A potential capital bill is one of several major initiatives that state lawmakers and the governor are negotiating. Facing a May 31 deadline when the legislative session is schedule to end, Pritzker and the General Assembly are working on a state budget, legislation that could potentially legalize recreational use of marijuana, and a proposal to expand gaming by potentially adding casino licenses and legalizing sports betting.
“These discussions are happening,” Sims said. “If we miss this opportunity it’s going to be at least another 10 years” before the state considers another capital-improvements bill.
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May 8, 2019 at 07:30AM