A "crown jewel" of political power in Madison County has become a battleground between Republicans and ousted Democrats, who made an end run to Springfield to get a law passed to regain power.
"It's old fashioned politics," said Steve Adler, a Republican and the $94,000-a-year executive director of the Metro East Sanitary District, which provides drainage and sewer service to parts of Madison and St. Clair counties. Until 2017 when Adler took over, the district employed 68 people in good-paying union jobs and ran deficits for nine years.
"MESD is the crown jewel for the Democrats and we took control of it and made it solvent. They want it back," Adler said.
Democrats used to get hired to work for the Metro East Sanitary District if they were on the same softball team as the agency's former executive director or had influential Democrat friends, but Adler said that ended.
After just one year in the job, Adler said he stopped the red ink. He said he got long-idled flood control pumps working again, oversaw the clearing of crucial drainage canals, cut payroll and probably averted flooding in Mitchell and Pontoon Beach this spring by lowering the level of Horseshoe Lake so storm water could collect there instead of in residents' basements.
Adler specified that when he took over in June 2017, the district was $400,000 in the red for the year. After six months of his leadership, he got the budget in the black by about $400,000. "I'm way ahead for the year," he said.
His staff also made repairs to the levee on the Mississippi that is expected to lead to Army Corps of Engineers certification for the first time since 2015.
Yet when Adler was recently introduced during a flood control meeting in Collinsville to Democrat Mark Kern, chairman of the St. Clair County Board, Adler said an irritated Kern told him, "It's time for new leadership at MESD." Kern did not respond to a written request for comment.
An ongoing battle for control of the levee board has reached to Springfield. Democrats Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, and Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, sponsored two amendments to a routine bill that Adler said are aimed at him and his boss, Republican County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler.
"Drainage is key to economic development," said Prenzler, who agreed with Adler that the proposed legislation is a political move aimed at Republicans including himself. Prenzler replaced the Democratic Madison County Board chairman in 2017, putting in Adler and replacing some sanitary district board members.
The bill, Senate Bill 2368, passed the senate and the house and now awaits action from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. It would require that a seat on the five-member MESD board be held by the mayor of the largest city in the county that has the highest assessed valuation. That city is Granite City, which is a Democrat stronghold in the county. It also requires the levee district executive director to live in the district. Adler lives outside the district.
A spokeswoman in Rauner's office said the bill has yet to reach his desk, and he would comment after it was received.
Adler said if Granite City Mayor Ed Hagnauer is named to the board, he is likely to vote with the St. Clair County members who include Centreville Township Supervisor Curtis McCall, a powerful Democrat, and East St. Louis Republican Victor Darwin, who often aligns with Democrats. That would create a three-vote majority that could lead to a motion to fire Adler.
But Hagnauer said, "I don't know what the bill says." He agreed with Adler's concern that Hagnauer could face a conflict of interest because Granite City receives about $1.5 million a year from the sanitary district to process sewage. He said he had no desire to leave the mayor's job for another position.
Hoffman, in a written response, said the legislation was enacted because the levee district board in April set up a special taxing area designed to generate tax revenue from home owners who benefited from services but do not pay as much as many taxpayers in Madison County. In May, a St. Clair County judge ruled the tax was illegal.
Hoffman also stated that residents of Granite City provide 42 percent of all tax revenue to the levee district, "but don't have a seat on the board." The current board configuration gives three seats to Madison County and two to St. Clair County, which has less assessed property evaluation. He said Adler should live within the levee district.
At least one seat in each county must be held by a member of the minority political party.
However, Haine, who is not running for re-election after serving nearly 16 years, said the bill was an effort to transform the levee board into an agency that runs on merit and not politics.
"There is a lack of competence. Funds are misspent. And the patronage," Haine said. "We still have an MESD mired in controversy and lawsuits ... I want patronage politics out of it."
But the longtime senator was unfamiliar with changes made by Adler during his first year, including dismissing 28 employees, which brought the workforce down to its current 40. As far as patronage, which is the common practice of those in power of placing members of their own political party into public jobs, Adler said, "I'm the only Republican with a full-time job in the MESD. There is no patronage here."
Adler said his deputy is a Democrat as are several supervisors of laborers. On Friday, a member of his staff checked records to see how many lawsuits had been filed against the district. Only one was found, Adler said, and that was a common, "slip and fall."
And Haine did not know Adler has claimed that for the first time in nine years the district is in the black. According to records supplied by the levee board, the administration prior to Adler lost $8 million in a decade.
But Haine insisted that criticism of the Republican administration of the MESD was not an attempt to return to good-old-boy politics.
"It's ridiculous to say it (SB 2368) is taking the district back to the old days," he said.
Haine was particularly critical of Adler's decision to run for Madison County Clerk against longtime incumbent and Democrat Debbie Ming Mendoza.
"Running for political office while managing millions of dollars in taxpayer money. I am absolutely opposed to it," Haine said.
Another Haine concern was over Adler's attempt to use funds from a temporary one-quarter of 1-cent sales tax on projects other than what it is limited by law to do: maintaining the flood levees along the Mississippi. Adler admitted that the tax attempt was a "mistake," although the intent was to improve drainage in communities prone to annual flooding.
Don Sawicki, a Republican member of the levee board and an Adler supporter, said in a written statement, "Springfield politics is about to unravel MESD's progress in a last-minute move by St. Clair County politicians. Tipping the balance of the MESD board to Democratic control will only bring back the good-old-days for politicians, not taxpayers."