Jerry Costello

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East St. Louis's Problems

 

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Crime, taxes and revenue are three problems East St. Louis
must solve - Jerry Costello

 

Jerry Costello, former St. Clair County Board chairman and now congressman, sees the possibility of a bright future for East St. Louis if cooperation can be achieved, the brightness working its way from riverfront development and following the tracks of Metro Link to Scott Air Force Base, with the betterment of the entire metropolitan area resulting.

But no financial bailout alone can save East St. Louis, Costello warns. For East St. Louis to be saved, the crime problem must be solved, the problem of the highest tax rate in the state must be solved, and there must be continuing funding sources for city services.

Costello and Officer have exchanged heated words, but Costello recognizes "You have to have revenue to run a city. I don't care if Carl Officer is mayor or Jim Thompson is mayor of that city. The problems in East St. Louis are not totally Carl Officer's fault. Or this city council's fault. The problems go back for many years, and the problems have grown progressively worse instead of better, despite the rhetoric about things getting better or 'We are turning the corner.'

A question for those who want to get rid of Carl Officer:

Who do you want in his place?

"That city needs a lot of help. And it needs a plan with the federal, state, county and local governments working together.

I don't think the state has any business trying to run East St. Louis, nor does the federal government, nor the county. The people of East St. Louis elect their local representatives to the council and as mayor. But when the federal and state government comes in to financially bail the city out, and that's what they are doing, there have to be some strings attached and some checks and balances. You can't just throw in the money and say 'when this is used up come back for more.' You must ask for accountability."

There are many people outside East St. Louis who want to get rid of Carl Officer. Officer's arrogance in television interviews, his inclination to take different positions on different days, his reputation for presumably shooting from the hip (not always a correct presumption) and his verbal attacks on the white political structure have won him few friends outside the city limits. But Costello answers Officer's critics with a question: "Who do you want in his place?"

There is a lack of a strong leader. Sen. Kenneth Hall and Charles Merritts say there has not been a strong leader of the people since the death of Clyde Jordan. If Officer runs for re-election as he probably will, "I'm not sure he won't be reelected," Costello said.

There is little question in the minds of most politicians that Officer will be elected to his fourth four-year term.

With East St. Louis featured on 20/20, Nightline. and 60 Minutes all in six months, the image of East St. Louis as a poverty-stricken city has been imprinted on the minds of TV viewers nationwide.

Many of the more affluent people of East St. Louis, including many teachers, have fled the city, and others are thinking of leaving. But still Costello finds there are plenty of people in the city who have something to contribute, good people who care.

Important events are happening in East St. Louis, and other events are on the horizon. The national attention from the television probes and the print media heighten the excitement. The state bailout can be the beginning, not the end.

As County Board chairman, Costello said he never was asked about East St. Louis when visiting the outlying towns or in St. Louis. But when he was elected to congress and as a freshman was asked to address, in Washington, a group of chief executive officers of major Illinois corporations including Illinois Bell and Caterpillar, the first question at the end of his presentation was "What are we going to do about East St. Louis?"

Whether it is because the blacks are fleeing from East St. Louis into outlying communities, national attention or just awareness, in town hall meetings as far away as Highland and Hillsboro and Marine, they ask "What about East St. Louis?"

The plan by Gov. Jim Thompson for a state bailout has made every taxpayer in the state aware of the city's problems, and the cost to other taxpayers.

East St. Louis must have outside help; no city in East St. Louis' condition can pull itself up by its bootstraps, Costello said. It will take a combined effort of federal, state, county and city government working together. However, in the past the East St. Louis leadership, and specifically Carl Officer, have taken the attitude "Give us your money, but not your advice or accountability. Keep your auditors and inspectors out of our City Hall."

The county has to account for the community block grant funds it receives, for state and federal monies, to open its books to auditors and its projects to inspectors. East St. Louis can expect to do no less.

Costello said that when he was County Board chairman that on two occasions he worked out a plan with Sen. Kenneth Hall, State Rep. Wyvetter Younge and the Operating Engineers union for its members to use St. Clair County trucks, graders and other highway equipment to do a massive cleanup in East St. Louis of burned-out buildings, trashed vacant lots, and dilapidated buildings. But it was left up to East St. Louis to organize, and nothing happened either time.

Again, Costello became enamored with Operation Brightside in St. Louis, sent staff to St. Louis to learn about it, and offered to Officer to hire up to 500 youths in East St. Louis for an Operation Brightside there. Again, Officer dropped the ball.

St. Clair County has acted as the entitlement body for community grant funds for the entire county except East St. Louis. East St. Louis is its own entitlement unit. Therefore, most county federal funds could not legally be used there. When the city's demolition program was shut down by the federal government after some fraud and indictments involving contractors, Costello, over the objection of some County Board members, used discretionary county funds to continue the demolition program. He also filled the Jones Park pool for the free use of East St. Louis youngsters.

Costello's successor County Board Chairman Francis Touchette said there is no way he would permit county equipment to be used for a cleanup program in East St. Louis. Touchette is not running for re-election in November. State's Atty. John Baricevic is most likely to get the post.

Officer has been vague about city finances, Costello said. One day he says the city is $50 million in the hole, the next day $5 million. The governor did the right thing in appointing an investigative task force and pinning down the debt at $47 million, and for making a proposal for relief. "We need to move forward from here," Costello said.

Moving forward and revenue to support the city both start, in Costello's opinion, at the riverfront. He has his fingers crossed that the House of Representatives by the time this book sees print will have marked up the budget to provide $2.25 million for the cleanup of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park on the East St. Louis riverfront.

That park, he predicts, will trigger the development of the entire East St. Louis riverfront if the city cooperates.

Back in 1984, U.S. Reps. Mel Price and Paul Simon (now a senator) were able to pass legislation for an extension of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the site of "The Arch," to the Illinois riverbank, but the legislation was very restrictive. It provides for the park to be 100 acres or less, for the land to be donated, and for any annual maintenance costs above $350,000 to be paid by local sources. More recently, Sens. Alan J. Dixon, Simon and Costello met with the Secretary of the Interior and obtained an agreement that he would designate the land as a national park providing the land were donated and was found environmentally safe. The state has taken test borings and the preliminary findings, Costello said, is that the soil is environmentally safe.

Costello asked Earl Lazerson, president of SIU-Edwardsville and chairman of the Southern Illinois Development Authority, to see if he could get the land donated. About 50 acres had been donated at the time of the interview in June.

"We want to lift the restrictions" in the enabling legislation, Costello said, but he and the senators feel it is better to get the designation and initial funding, then seek to amend the enabling legislation. Costello said some people want to see a 250-acre park, but Officer does not want to see that much land taken from the tax base, "and I agree." The memorial in St. Louis is only about 85 acres, and 100 acres on the Illinois side should be ample, in Costello's view.

The park and a Metro Link stop on the riverfront could be the key to spectacular riverfront development, it seems. St. Louis interests have assured Costello they are ready to build condos, apartments, even a golf course, on the Illinois side with assurances of safety, reasonable taxes and the anchor of the park. The developments could provide the revenues the city needs to provide services after the bailout, Costello said. The developers -want to make money, but there is no problem with that if the city also benefits. East St. Louis has home rule and could give any incentives it needs for development to cooperate with programs.

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial draws 1.5 million people annually and is the second or third busiest attraction in the federal system, Costello said. East St. Louis could participate in the revenue derived from this major tourist attraction.

Riverboat gambling, which Officer sees as a key to city income and jobs and a spur to development, obviously could contribute to the tourism value of the riverfront.

The presence of park rangers on the riverfront would add to an overall sense of security that can spread through the city.

Metro Link will have a positive impact. It will be safe and fast and give another sense of security in the city. It is being planned carefully and modeled after the best. Costello said he rides the Washington D.C. Metro from his Crystal City apartment to the Capitol every day, and feels more secure there than anywhere else in Washington, which may have more murders per hundred than East St. Louis, as well as an acute drug problem. When people from Metro-East visit Washington, they are amazed at the Metro. It's clean, safe, fast, not the New York City subway system - and neither will Metro Link be.

Scott Joint Use also will improve the job market for East St. Louisans. Costello said he hears of quotas and he doesn't know that he accepts the need for percentages, but he agrees that many of the jobs for construction and operation should go to the people who need them most.

If the city, county, state and federal governments can find a way to work together, the state bailout, riverfront park, riverfront development, Metro Link, Scott joint use, and yes, riverboat gambling, all can help East St. Louis overcome the problems of high taxes, high crime and the lack of revenue, and to provide decent services for the residents and businesses.

 

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