Mayor Ann Rodgers said she was greatly relieved when financial regulators from the state comptroller’s office stopped complaining that they were weary of excuses for why the impoverished, crime-ridden village could not pay its debts.
“They would literally hang up on me,” she said.
“They finally began to listen and that’s when we began to start to work together to climb out of this financial hole,” said Rodgers, a single mother who is a part-time mayor paid $21,600 per year for a village that operates with a $2.1 million annual budget.
“I told them I’m the new mayor and I want to get this right.”
And while village Trustee James Madkins said he remains unimpressed by this effort — “Have you driven around the village? The village is in ruins,” he said — financial records do show improvement.
The change in the state’s attitude developed after she took office in 2013, Rodgers said, as she and her $60,000-per-year consultant Ray Coleman began chipping away at a $5.5 million mountain of debt. This was left over from previous administrations.
In 2009, a federal judge refused on procedural grounds to allow the village to declare bankruptcy. The situation was made even worse when a clerk and an assistant to then Mayor John Thornton, who was murdered, later told federal prosecutors that same year they had colluded to embezzle more than $500,000.
A review by the News-Democrat of village bank statements for 2015-16 shows that $499,000 was paid to cover court settlements for current and past employees and other plaintiffs, legal fees and for financial consultants.
Coleman said it isn’t possible to pay all of the hundreds of vendors listed in the failed bankruptcy petition. Instead, past debt for essential services like trash removal, police protection and road crews, and court-ordered settlements became the focus.
Referring to past administrations, Coleman said, “Because of unstable, dysfunctional government, people take you to court and you lose. But we are paying our debt off. We don’t get phone calls like we did before.”
I told them I’m the new mayor and I want to get this right.
Washington Park Mayor Ann Rodgers
When AT&T was paid off recently, Rodgers said, “It was a hallelujah moment for me. AT&T called and said, ‘Mayor, your debt is down to zero.’”
Records show that the village has improved its financial condition enough to obtain liability, Worker’s Compensation and error and omission insurance — all things it didn’t have before.
Granite City attorney Eric Evans has been paid approximately $147,000 over the past two years, records show, to settle more than 50 legal claims against Washington Park.
“I am rather proud of the legal condition of the village, vis-a-vis the condition we found it in,” Evans said in a written statement. “We have resolved every claim that has been made during this mayor’s (Rodgers) administration, which is something that has never been done before. We have gotten the village back to where it can purchase insurance.”
But the nearly half a million dollars spent to firm up the village’s finances over the past two years has not always gone smoothly.
An Indiana auditing firm, recommended by an East St. Louis certified public accountant, was paid nearly $43,000 but, Coleman said in his opinion, did not provide satisfactory results.
“The village did not get what it paid for,” Coleman said. The firm, C.R. Williams, LLC, is no longer being paid by the village.
Rodgers said of the firm: “I do blame them for not doing an adequate job of giving the Illinois Comptroller’s Office nor my administration the professional and productive services we were paying for.”
Joseph Joyner, management partner for C.R. Williams, said his firm provided all that was asked for in the contract. He said the goal was to “recreate the financial infrastructure of the village,” meaning auditing records.
Because of unstable, dysfunctional government, people take you to court and you lose. But we are paying our debt off. We don’t get phone calls like we did before.
Washington Park consultant Ray Coleman
Coleman said when he was first hired he could find no records, and that previous village officials had not produced a mandatory state-required financial audit since 2003. Such an audit is currently in process, he said.
While the financial situation has yet to be fully resolved, a political battle is underway in the village. Rodgers and her slate of candidates have been knocked off the ballot for the April 4 election, although she said her side will appear in St. Clair County Court on Feb. 16 to argue that they should remain as candidates. Rodgers said the effort was led by her political opponents.
Village Clerk Rickie Thomas also is running for mayor. The two sides often are at odds on village business. He could not be reached for comment.
At issue is whether Rodgers and her team complied with state law by being paid up on taxes. Thomas’ side has alleged that Rodgers’ team failed to pay a $20 wheel tax sticker fee and that could be interpreted as not being paid up on taxes.
Rodgers said village officials had previously been provided the stickers for free and that this practice went back many years and should not result in her removal from the ballot. Evans, the village attorney, is representing her on the election challenge, but is being paid by her campaign committee and not from public funds, she said.
Rodgers’ side also has accused Thomas of not living in the village — something he has denied — and recently passed a controversial residency ordinance.
Carlene Tucker, who recently gave up her trustee’s seat on the village board and then tried unsuccessfully to get it back, said politics and past financial irregularities have cursed the impoverished village.
Tucker, who has been appointed village Civil Defense director at $500 a month, the same salary she was making as a trustee, said, “It’s this horrible web. Politics against government. It’s things that happened years ago that got this city like it is now.”
Madkins, the current trustee, couldn’t specifically say what Rodgers and Coleman were doing that might be ineffective. But he said he was sure it was something.
“They have not made a connection with citizens. They’re failing the citizens,” he said. “So, I don’t think they’re doing a good job.”
Washington Park’s changing financial picture
Bank statements for the Village of Washington Park during a two-year period from 2015-2016 provided under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, showed:*
☆ $499,016 paid in taxpayer funds to settle lawsuit judgments, legal claims, lawyer’s fees and financial consulting costs.
☆ Village Attorney Eric Evans of Granite City has been paid $146,765 to settle more than 50 legal claims and other work.
☆ $274,488 was paid out in 2015 to settle debts.
☆ $224,528 was paid out in 2016 to settle debts.
* The two-year period covered 23 months. A check register for February 2016 was missing from the records.