Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan painted a picture of a county recovering from the double impact of a levee crisis and the national recession in an address Thursday morning.
Several years ago, Dunstan said, the county was hit with the recession along with the rest of the country, but also with the threat of decertifying the levees that protect the area from floods. That decertification would have made it very difficult to attract new business or even to keep the businesses that are currently operating in Madison County.
Dunstan said residents who live near the levees should have flood insurance, but the insurance premiums were at issue. A business owner paying $250 a month for flood insurance would end up paying more than $1,200 a month if the levee rating was changed.
The problem with the levees was not their height, but underseepage, Dunstan said. Water would leak underneath the levees, and it required significant work that he credited to three county governments, state and federal governments and both political parties working together.
“These levees are in better shape today than they’ve ever been,” Dunstan said. Even so, he said, some businesses that were considering relocating the Madison County gave up in the interim.
Now the levees are being renovated with new wells, pump stations and berms, with another $96 million required to get the levees certified at the 500-year level. The 1993 flood is considered a 350-year level. “We know we have to get to the 500-year level to protect our residents,” he said. “We’re doing what we have to do to bring these up,” he said.
In the meantime, Dunstan said the economy is turning around in Madison County with more business returning or relocating to the area. From “devastating” losses after the 2008 economy crash, such as the loss of a Red Cross center that promised 800 jobs, Dunstan said growth at Gateway Commerce Center and other warehouse and transportation developments give a bright future to Madison County.
“I think the future of Madison County is logistics,” he said. “Where you’re sitting today, over 50 percent of the population of the United States lives within 750 miles… You can reach 30 percent of the population within a day’s truck drive.”
Dunstan predicted freight traffic would increase by 60 percent in the next 25 years. The interstates are only part of it, he said; Madison County has access to the nation’s largest inlet port with a foreign trade zone, the third-largest rail hub in the nation and full-service commercial airlines.
“This is probably the number-one thing Madison County should be looking at: logistics,” Dunstan said.
Dunstan gave his address Thursday morning to business leaders in Granite City at “Issues and Eggs,” hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Southwestern Madison County.
Dunstan addressed the recent decision to temporarily idle the steel plant in Granite City, which has laid off 2,080 people, and last week’s announcement that Alton Steel will lay off 66 more people. Dunstan said he is confident the Granite City plant will reopen.
“From all indications, it is a temporary layoff,” Dunstan said. “We don’t know the extent of it…. (but) they spent a lot of money at Granite City Steel. I don’t think it’ll close permanently.”
Still, Dunstan acknowledged the impact of even a temporary idling of the plant, and vowed to help the people affected by the plant’s closure. “It doesn’t just affect steel employees,” he said. “It affects other businesses as well.”
Dunstan said he still believes the future of the entire St. Louis metropolitan area is east. “I live in Troy and I can get to downtown St. Louis in 20 minutes,” he said. “I think we have to do a better job of letting people in Missouri know that… But even in Missouri, they’re starting to understand that the future of the area is here.”
At the county level, Dunstan reiterated that the county has cut more than 200 jobs since the recession hit, and last year’s tax levy was a decrease from the year before. He said the 2015 budget is just now at the 2008 level, and the county will be completely debt-free this year.
“Things in Madison County are pretty good,” he said.
But Dunstan said they cannot help but be impacted by the financial disaster at the state level. If the state follows through on its proposal to cut or eliminate local governments’ share of income taxes, Madison County alone will lose $2.7 million a year. Alton and Granite City each would lose $1.4 million, he said.
“We know the state has to balance their budgets,” Dunstan said. “We have concerns that they will balance it on local budgets.”
That loss would require raising property taxes or cutting budgets even further, Dunstan said. For example, a program in which the county provides matching funds for cities when they apply for grants would have to be cut, putting greater pressure on the municipalities when they try to get non-tax funding for projects. He said the impact would be “devastating” for those communities.
Dunstan said Madison County and other local governments have already managed their problems through the recession. “When the recession hit, we made adjustments,” he said. “Don’t make us make additional cuts when we didn’t cause the problems at the state level.”
But overall, Dunstan said, Madison County is “open for business.”
“We can’t control what’s happening on the state level, we can only control what’s happening locally,” he said. “I think this county is in the best financial shape it’s ever been. There are some issues, and the biggest one is the state’s problems… But I will do anything I can to keep your business here and help it expand.”