NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links


Macomb: bridging the economic gap with state revenue

News reporter Dan Krosse and photographer Tim Whitfield of WGEM Channel 10 in Quincy interview Ahmad Akashe, WIU senior from Palestine, at the Day of Action protest.       Photo by Raymundo Luna/The Western Courier

Residents of Macomb are looking to Springfield for help. A huge deficit hangs over their public schools, students at Western Illinois University face their third tuition hike in a year, the community mental health center is dismantling its program and citizens sometimes still think they are forgotten by state government. "I don't think anyone's running around saying 'tax me,' but people here are aware of the need," says Bill Jacobs of the Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce. About 70 of the 21,000 residents of the highly Republican McDonough County seat spent primary election night writing state officials in support of a tax increase.

"The only hope we have is coming out of Springfield," says Thomas Wolf, superintendent for Macomb Unit School District 185. Even with the additional revenue that a .5 increase in the state income tax would generate, Wolf forecasts a deficit of $800,000 for the district. Without the extra help, he forecasts a $1.5 million deficit. The fiscal problems were created when assessed valuations on area property — mainly farmland — went down. Two schools have been closed in recent years, upper level classes such as geography, calculus, political science and business law have been cut from the curriculum, and the vocational program is nearly dead. The local school board is looking into funding options, including a possible tax increase referendum in November. But Wolf says money from the state will be necessary for the schools to overcome the deficit and adequately serve the students.

Wolf says the school district plans to become more political by organizing a coalition of support and then endorsing candidates, possibly bringing several hundred votes under the district's control. "Then they'll have to listen to us," he says. In an immediate effort to convince legislators of the need for a tax hike, the district organized the primary night letter writing campaign. House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago), House Minority Leader Lee A. Daniels (R-46, Elmhurst) and Rep. Kent Slater (R-95, Macomb) were among targets of their campaign. Slater says House Republicans will propose no tax increase without the speaker's support, but both Madigan and Daniels say they will resist any attempt to raise the income tax.

At Western Illinois University, the city's largest employer, students, faculty and administration are all taking action as well. Western's growing student population, currently over 12,000, faced a mid-year tuition hike this academic year and will likely face another increase this fall unless more state money flows into the university. "The governor has lit a fire under higher ed," says Kurt Jefferson, president of the student government organization. Western students participated in Day of Action rallies last fall on campus and in Springfield and plan to do so again this spring. Jefferson says students also plan to speak at area high schools to involve future students now.

WIU President Ralph H. Wagoner, who emphasizes the good relationship between the university and the city, has been taking his case to the community. He speaks regularly to community groups and tapes a weekly radio show. He says the university has done everything it can to cut back spending: "I don't see how we can reallocate another dime internally." Although efforts to get a state income tax increase have failed in the past, Wagoner believes the people will respond this time. "I'm an optimist," he says. "I truly believe the citizens of the state of Illinois have too much pride to see one of the greatest educational systems ravaged."

May 1988 | Illinois Issues | 29

The Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce also backs a tax hike. "I think because of local school problems and our sensitivity to the university's need, there are more people here who would support revenue enhancements," says Bill Jacobs, executive vice president. Jacobs sent a letter to Lester W. Brann Jr., president of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, protesting Brann's anti-tax stand.

'I think because of local
school problems and our
sensitivity to the
university's need, there are
more people here who
would support
revenue enhancements'

But not all Macomb businessmen support a tax hike. "I believe at the present time it's hard for a small business to be in favor of a tax increase when we're working late to break even,'' says Ben Schiek, owner of a bookstore on the courthouse square. Schiek says the only people enthused about a tax hike are those who work for the state.

Local pharmacists see a need for increased state revenues, because they have been directly hit by the state's current fiscal crunch. The pharmacists work with the Department of Public Aid by giving out medicine to welfare recipients. The state is then supposed to repay the pharmacists within 30 days, but it has often been 60-90 days before state money arrives. "The state is not paying; we're subsidizing," says pharmacist Jack Stites. Local pharmacists still offer assistance to public aid recipients because many are longtime customers or because they live in nursing homes the pharmacy supplies. But several doctors and optometrists, upset about late payments, have given up on the system. "They have a legitimate gripe," says Greg Materilla, McDonough County public aid director. Materilla says finding doctors who will take welfare recipients has become his biggest problem.

For the Community Mental Health Center of Fulton and McDonough counties additional state dollars are crucial. The private, nonprofit organization receives roughly half its funding from the state. With state support decreasing, Director Benjamin White warns that many clients will have to return to direct state care. "If I have to keep dismantling this program, people are going to have to return to state hospitals," White says. He notes that the center receives about $500,000 annually to serve its patients, whereas the closed Galesburg Mental Health Center had an annual state budget of $22 million. White also says he cannot pay his workers as much as the state pays its caseworkers. "If there's going to be community mental health, there ought to be a minumum level of services across the state," he says.

With an economy greatly related to agriculture, Macomb was hit hard by the farm crisis. Illinois' Rural Route Program, run by extension advisers from the University of Illinois, helps farmers with business decisions. "All farmers have had some degree of financial difficulty," says Nye Bouslog, who has advised farmers throughout western Illinois. Bouslag would meet with farmers, go over their financial situation and then make recommendations on reorganization. Bouslag now deals with farmers who were able to survive the recession, but are hard hit now. "I do have fewer clients than a few years ago, but the ones I have now have bigger farms — bigger problems."

Bigger problems mainly mean larger debts. Calvin C. Spencer, farm managment adviser for the Citizens National Bank of Macomb, says more farmers are coming out of difficult times, but it is harder to get a loan. Spencer said the bank takes a much more detailed look at farmer's income tax returns and cash flow balances before authorizing a loan.

Other areas of the economy have suffered as well. The largest setback was when the King-Seeley Thermos Company closed its local plant and moved to the sunbelt, despite the efforts of local and state officials.

Macomb lies in the heart of a region that has long been known as "Forgotonia." The self-adopted nickname brought national attention when the region declared itself a separate state in the early 1970s, complete with a state flag (a white surrender flag), state flower (the forget-me-not) and a self-proclaimed governor. "It became a state of mind," says Macomb Mayor Robert Anstine. "We were forgotten."

But the area is not forgotten anymore — at least in the eyes of some. "Eliminate that word from your vocabulary," Sen. Laura Kent Donahue (R-48, Quincy) says of the nickname. "It doesn't exist anymore." Donahue maintains that the once forgotten area is now noticed by state government. "We have more road projects and things going on in western Illinois — more capital money coming in here than at any one point in our history."

"If it was ever true that we were a forgotten part of the state, it was our fault," Jacobs says. He maintains that residents who complain that the region is forgotten only discourage tourism and business opportunities. He also says Macomb is starting to expand. "We feel like we're less isolated than we've ever been."

Yet several Macomb residents still feel neglected by the state. Macomb is not served by an interstate highway, although current plans include expanding Route 67 north to a four-lane highway that would connect the city with I-74. The airport was recently expanded and can now accommodate commercial flights.

Although the agricultural economy is picking up, student enrollment at the university is increasing and new road projects are planned for the area, an economic gap exists. Pharmacists, doctors, local schools, the community mental health center and the university need more state dollars for the services they are expected to provide.□

Brett D. Johnson is pursuing a master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from Sangamon State University. A 1987 graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, he was editor of the Illinois Wesleyan Argus for two years.

May 1988 | Illinois Issues | 30

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 1988|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library