South suburban mayors say major influx of government dollars needed for water infrastructure

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Mayor Fred Bilotto calls it “the invisible issue.”

Aging water and sewer lines are spread throughout Blue Island and water main breaks are happening more frequently, but his city doesn’t have the money to do a wide-ranging replacement of water lines, he said.

The problem doesn’t draw much attention because it is unseen until a break and the water stops flowing, Bilotto said.

He and other south suburban mayors met recently with representatives of the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies, who discussed funding available such as low-interest loans and loans where, for disadvantaged communities, the principal doesn’t have to be repaid.

The meeting was organized by retiring U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, and Robbins Mayor Darren Bryant.

Bryant said a follow-up meeting is planned which will include Jonathan Jackson, elected last month to succeed Rush as representative of the 1st Congressional District. Jackson is a son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Bryant, in his first term as Robbins mayor, said significant federal resources need to be directed to helping communities such as his.

Blue Island Mayor Fred Bilotto in a City Hall conference room May 12, 2021.

Blue Island Mayor Fred Bilotto in a City Hall conference room May 12, 2021. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

“I’m asking the federal government to have the same energy we had during COVID when it comes to water,” he said Thursday, the day after the meeting with the EPA officials.

Bryant said the village’s engineer has estimated it would cost $40 million to upgrade the village’s water system.

Christopher Clark, Harvey’s mayor who took part in the meeting, said it would cost in the neighborhood of $100 million to complete a major overhaul of that city’s water system, although the mayor gives the system high marks.

“Our residents are well served,” he said Thursday. “We put in a lot of work to make sure that’s the case.”

Clark said the meeting was an encouraging first step, because it put he and other mayors in touch with key people at the state and federal level.

“Having the resources and relationships means you have something to build on,” he said.

Fitzgerald Roberts, Dixmoor’s mayor who was also part of the meeting, said it’s estimated that overhauling his village’s water and sewer lines will cost some $100 million.

He said talking with EPA officials was valuable, but loans are not what his community needs if it wants to tackle aging water and sewer infrastructure.

“Why should the state or federal government loan us the money?” he said. “It’s our money already, just give us the money. It’s not like we’re putting it in our personal accounts.”

Clark and Bilotto said options such as low-interest loans or grants that require a matching dollar amount from the city aren’t always feasible.

“We’re all running very lean, all the towns,” Bilotto said. “We’re all trying to do more with less.”

Bilotto said he couldn’t hazard a guess as to what the cost of overhauling his city’s water or sewer systems, which include brick-lined sewers and lead water service lines, would cost.

“The stuff underground is more than 100 years old,” he said. “Just fixing the breaks as they happen is a huge depletion of resources.”

Bilotto said he knows the problems with aging infrastructure are not limited Blue Island or nearby suburbs, and fixing the problems won’t happen without a significant contribution from state or federal agencies.

“It’s impossible without outside help,” he said.

Harvey Mayor Christopher Clark speaks at a news conference July 7, 2022, outside of South Suburban Senior Housing Apartments in Harvey.

Harvey Mayor Christopher Clark speaks at a news conference July 7, 2022, outside of South Suburban Senior Housing Apartments in Harvey. (Mike Nolan / Daily Southtown)

Clark said because of the required match, it “can be a decision-breaker on even whether to apply” for infrastructure grants.

“We need grants that do not have the matching fund component,” he said.

Bilotto, a former Blue Island alderman elected mayor in spring 2021, said water main breaks are happening more frequently. The city had two around Thanksgiving that affected about 50 homes for several hours.

Robbins had a water main break discovered the morning of Nov. 23 that initially affected 100 homes, and on Thanksgiving the entire community was without water for about four hours, Bryant said.

Dixmoor was plagued this year by several water main failures.

“In one week we had 12 breaks, and they weren’t small breaks,” Roberts said.

Dixmoor Mayor Fitzgerald Roberts speaks April 15, 2022, about a $2 million water infrastructure project in his village.

Dixmoor Mayor Fitzgerald Roberts speaks April 15, 2022, about a $2 million water infrastructure project in his village. (Mike Nolan / Daily Southtown)

Toward the end of July, all 3,500 Dixmoor residents were without clean drinking water following a series of breaks and, last October main breaks also left residents without water.

This past spring, $2 million in funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was announced that will result in a new water line that will replace an aging line and help improve water flow to Dixmoor homes. Construction is scheduled to get underway next spring.

The Illinois EPA said that, in fiscal year 2022, it issued more than a half-billion dollars in loans to communities for wastewater, stormwater and drinking water infrastructure projects. Currently, the low-interest loans carry an annual interest rate of 1.24%, according to the IEPA.

Also in fiscal 2022, nearly $59 million in loans were made for such projects to disadvantaged communities, where the loan principal doesn’t have to be repaid.

In October, the Illinois EPA announced that Robbins will get a $4 million low-interest loan to replace lead water service lines at 450 homes, mainly in older areas of the village. While the suburb will have to pay interest on the amount, it won’t have to repay the loan’s principal.

Alsip Mayor John Ryan

Alsip Mayor John Ryan (John Ryan)

John Ryan, Alsip’s mayor, who was also at the meeting, said his village has taken advantage of EPA loans for water and sewer projects and realizes that there “is a lack of funding to do more infrastructure work” in communities in the south suburbs, particularly those that lack a robust property and sales tax base.

“They need more help from government entities,” he said.

He said new and existing companies making large investments have beefed up the village’s tax base. Ryan said Alsip has been fortunate it has been able to spend about $1 million each year to improve water and sewer lines.

Like Bilotto, Ryan said maintaining the below ground infrastructure is an ongoing task.

“What you can’t see is going to hurt you,” Ryan said.

He and other mayors who were part of the meeting hope the cooperation continues and sheds light on the need for more infrastructure funding.

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Bryant said it is possible the planned February meeting will include other south suburban mayors.

“We are calling for every mayor in the state who has this issue to come to the table,” he said.

Bilotto said he was encouraged.

“We’re all trying to work together and help each other out, knowing this is a common denominator,” Bilotto said.

Roberts said he is hoping the string of water main failures will continue to ease up as the area slides into winter, and that EPA officials listened to the mayors’ concerns.

“I’m praying we can get the help we need,” he said.

mnolan@tribpub.com

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December 16, 2022 at 05:28PM

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