Census 2010: Will it change the metro-east's balance of political power?

News-DemocratFebruary 15, 2011 

Today, the U.S. census rolls out the demographic details for Illinois, telling us where our communities have gained and lost and how they have changed.

The counts will determine how the financial pie is sliced and could very likely change the metro-east's balance of political power.

While Democratic strongholds in East St. Louis and Belleville shrink or tread water, leaders in more conservative communities such as O'Fallon and Shiloh expect strong growth.

"I think as the population moves away from East St. Louis to the eastern part of the county, Republicans are going to do better and better," St. Clair County Republican Party Chairman Jon McLean said. "We expect to pick up a couple County Board seats in the outer county" in the 2012 election.

O'Fallon, which had only 12,000 residents in 1980, is expected to easily surpass the 30,000 mark when 2010 census data is released today. Meanwhile, Democratic stronghold East St. Louis might drop below the 25,000 mark. It had 55,000 residents in 1980 and 31,542 in 2000. The Census Bureau estimated 28,753 people lived in the city in 2009.

Leaders of St. Clair County's Democratic and Republican parties are both anticipating changes in the county's division of political power because of the census, largely because of East St. Louis' population loss. As with the last three decennial counts, the 2010 figures could show a 20 percent drop for East St. Louis, possibly leaving the city below 25,000 -- or less than one-third its population of 50 years ago.

It's a prospect that McLean hopes to exploit when new County Board districts are carved out for the 2012 ballot.

"We think 12 to 14 seats is very reasonable," McLean said. "There's a possibility we could take the County Board, and it's just a matter of how these districts are drawn."

Thirty-five years ago, when Democrat Frank Heiligenstein started representing the Freeburg area, the St. Clair County Board's 29 seats were split this way: 19 from East St. Louis and other towns on the American Bottoms flood plain and 10 from Belleville and elsewhere "above the hill." Population shifts have exactly reversed that, with 10 seats "below the hill" and 19 above it, Heiligenstein said.

Heiligenstein doubted the Democrats would lose control of the board in 2012. But he acknowledged the likelihood of gains for Republicans, who, because of their minority status, have had little voice in county government.

"It's possible we're going to see more of a balance" in power-sharing between the two parties, Heiligenstein said.

O'Fallon Finance Director Dean Rich has served as the city's point man when it comes to census matters. He said he's nervously awaiting results because of the impact on his city's finances.

Rich said there were numerous problems with the count that he's not certain were resolved.

"I'm worried about it," Rich said. "I'm worried that they addressed some mailers they sent out to O'Fallon people marked as if they lived in Belleville. I'm worried because when I got some of the preliminary numbers back, there were several hundred houses not counted.

"It took us about 60 days to get them to say they would go back and do that," Rich said. "I think they did it. But they never gave us any feedback one way or the other about it. So I just don't know if they got them or not."

Rich estimated O'Fallon will crack 30,000 when the count is done.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said he is hopeful his city will at least be able to break even on its 45,506 tally from a special count completed after a dispute over the 2000 census.

"Could it be less? It could. But I am hoping for a slight increase," Eckert said.

He said the census is very important in terms of dollars for cities. It worries him that the count is "done by a lot of part-time people" and that it counts on "finding people at the right time and cooperation from the public."

What is expected from the census in other communities?

* Madison County leaders expect about 10,000 new residents.

"Our expectations are that they will be consistent with estimates," Madison County Administrator Joe Parente said.

The most recent estimate in 2009 showed the county population at 268,457, which would be a 3.7 percent increase from 2000.

Parente said much of the growth has occurred in the county's "bluff" communities, including Troy, Collinsville, Edwardsville and Glen Carbon. The fastest-growing city might be Maryville; its population has grown three-fold since 1990.

"That's where the new housing is being developed," Parente said. "It has slowed down since the recession set in."

*Collinsville has grown at a more moderate rate of 5.3 percent. It was one of multiple "bluff cities" that did a special census in the middle of the past decade, which showed the city passed the 25,000-resident benchmark for gaining home-rule status and allowed the city to adopt a new tax.

"That was huge," City Manager Bob Knabel said.

* Although the county's eastern cities have been growing, a decrease in population in the cities located closer to the Mississippi River has also been a decades-long trend, Parente said.

While Alton, Wood River and Venice are expected to have lower populations, one slight exception to this trend may come in Granite City. Its population is expected to be slightly higher based on the 2009 estimate.

Granite City economic developer John Ferry said the city has seen good and bad over the decade, with U.S. Steel temporarily closing but then expanding in 2008. The company is the city's largest employer with 2,200 employees, he said.

A rise in population would slightly boost income, but the bigger effect would be on perception, Ferry said.

"The image everyone has is that Granite has been declining for years and years and years," Ferry said. "To break that image would be good for us."

* Fairview Heights residents had to work out address discrepancies in the spring to make sure they weren't counted as East St. Louis residents. Mayor Gail Mitchell said he'll be watching the numbers because they affect the city coffers, especially since the city is in the middle of working on this year's budget.

"I figure we'll gain at least a thousand, 1,500, just by the amount of homes being built," Mitchell said.

* Swansea Mayor Jim Rauckman said he's confident the census blocks are correct and his constituents won't be miscounted. He said Swansea's count last decade was 11,450 and he expects this count to be around 13,050.

"I think any growth in today's economy, with foreclosures and all, is positive," Rauckman said. "If you have too much growth, your government and infrastructure can't keep up with it, so I'm happy with 1 or 2 percent a year."

* Monroe County Board Chairman Delbert Wittenauer said there's no doubt the county is growing, but he expects the rate to have slowed because of the economy.

"The people in Monroe County are a good, family-minded population, so we welcome it," Wittenauer said.

The last count showed the county had 20,700 people and Wittenauer expects the new number will be 35,000.

Wittenauer said the growth in the cities of Columbia and Waterloo are about equal, and the growth in Valmeyer is substantial.

"We know there's a trend that people with higher incomes, in general, are moving into Monroe County, and people with lower income are moving out," Wittenauer said.

Monroe County has one of the state's highest per capita incomes. Still, the county has been affected by the economic downturn, Wittenauer said.

"Our growth has slowed down because building has really slowed down. There's a lot of empty houses, actually," he said. "We do lack some economic development, so our real estate tax is really, really high. It does put a pretty big burden on our population. We're trying to put more balance into our tax generating businesses."

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