CAIRO — For years, Alexander County has been “living on the edge,” amid budget troubles, said County Treasurer Maria Watkins.
But these days, county officials are not so worried about falling off the cliff.
After years of painful downsizing, the county’s finances have hit strained stability, officials tell The Southern.
“We’re running a slight deficit this year, but it’s better than last year,” said County Board Chair Joe Griggs. “If we keep moving in the direction we’re moving in, I think we can begin to generate balanced budgets.”
The county has been a local and even national symbol of rural decline, losing about 34% of its population since 2000, according to estimates used by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
In 2011, about 300 structures were damaged by flooding around Cairo, the county seat, pushing out homeowners and businesses who contributed much-needed local taxes. Flooding this year pushed out still more residents, particularly in the village of East Cape Girardeau.
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In 2018, the Elmwood and McBride public housing complexes in Cairo were closed and later demolished, forcing 285 households to relocate. About 70 households found housing in the Cairo area, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Those that left represented a significant loss for a county whose total population is only about 6,000 people. And as the population has decreased, the county has been forced to cut services.
In 2009, the county laid off 16 employees, including three-fourths of its sheriff's deputies, and had five patrol cars repossessed.
"If the layoffs had not taken place, it would've meant the shutdown of the courthouse," said county board member Angela Greenwell at the time.
In 2015, as the budget impasse left the state behind on many bills, the county was forced to cut staff again, laying off seven of 13 sheriff’s department employees, plus three other workers, according to the Associated Press.
Since then, it has worked under an $800,000 debt load, officials say, with county offices staffed at the bare minimum. The good news, said Griggs and County Sheriff Timothy Brown, is that no drastic cuts are imminent.
Meanwhile, Watkins, a Cairo native who took office in December 2018, has teamed up with Alexander County State’s Attorney Zachary Gowin to attack the county’s debt.
“When I came into office, we had bills stretching all the way back to the ‘90s,” Watkins said. “But some of these companies are no longer in existence, and they can’t collect on it.”
Gowin’s research has led the county to believe it can legally “wipe out” a significant portion of its bills, Watkins said, reducing the deficit to about $400,000.
“It’s all about working together,” Watkins said. “Now we can see a better picture of what we’re working with.”
Drawing on a recommendation from a fellow treasurer, Watkins has also implemented monthly meetings, where she gives all the county officeholders updates on the county’s cash flow and budget.
“No one else really knows how much revenue is coming in,” she explained. “We come together and really put our heads together to see where we can curb spending.”
The meetings have already led to new cost-cutting ideas, Watkins said, like reassessing options for housing the county’s inmates, since Alexander County has no jail of its own.
Though Griggs is confident that the County can soon begin producing balanced budgets, officials agree that the only way to make a substantial impact on past debt will be to attract new investment.
“We barely can keep up with the month-to-month expenses. I haven’t even touched the past debt,” Watkins said. “It is just so much. It’s like when can we breathe for a minute?”
The primary source of hope is a proposal to build a river port near Cairo, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
The project’s leaders plan to solicit $75 million in state funds for the project out of a pool of $150 million appropriated to support port development projects in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Build Illinois capital improvement plan, according to State Sen. Dale Fowler.
“I’m pretty confident it’s going to be a public-private venture, which is good,” Fowler told The Southern. “We do have some private equity companies that are very interested in it.”
Watkins is hopeful, but skeptical.
“We’ve had so many promises come through of things going to happen and they didn’t. I think that’s where everybody is emotionally,” she said. “I hope the port goes through, I hope jobs come available, I’m hoping the housing authority or somebody does something with the housing projects. I’m willing to even help out. Paint a couple houses and renovate and get some things going.”
Watkins comes from a big family that has been in Cairo for generations. She and her husband own their home in town, and are raising two young sons. She wants them to have sports programs and a community center, and nice places to go out and play.
When she looks at the vacant lots around her grandmother’s house, she dreams of a water park.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to make this work. For me, prayer. We need to pray for all of this,” she said. “It’s been like this for so long.”
Last year, Watkins helped organize the first-annual Cairo Lights Parade, and she founded the Sweetheart Pageant, a replica of Cairo’s famed Miss Riverboat pageant, which died out from lack of participation.
Both events will be repeated this year, on Dec. 6 and 7, respectively, and Watkins hopes to draw attendees from across Southern Illinois.
At work, she hopes to “bring the county to the 21st century,” by implementing direct deposit, she said, and to keep pushing to balance the books.
“If I can’t do it in my term, hopefully I can move it forward,” she said.
The challenges are as great as ever. Alexander County remains among the poorest in the state, with about 33% of all residents below the poverty line, per census data.
Watkins still gets calls from debt collectors about county autopsies that haven’t been paid, jailhouse bills and old lawsuits that were never settled.
And unpredictable expenses remain: The County has no idea when it might be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for overtime wages paid during the flood fight, Watkins said.
But opportunities loom, too.
The County recently became host to one of four Disaster Loan Outreach Centers (DOLC) created by the Illinois Emergency Agency (IEMA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to help flood victims in Alexander, Pulaski and Union Counties repair their homes and businesses.
And a $212,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced Nov. 21, will allow Community Health and Emergency Services, Inc. to reestablish pharmacy services in Cairo and develop a new tele-medicine project for opioid addicts.
“I feel we’ll be in great shape in three years,” Griggs said. “It’s too much effort to do this work not to be optimistic about it.”