Editorials

East St. Louis debt rounds corner to wind up back where it was

Things could be worse in East St. Louis. In 1988 the city couldn’t pay for trash service, so garbage piled up in the streets and alleys. It cost $1.6 million to clear the trash.
Things could be worse in East St. Louis. In 1988 the city couldn’t pay for trash service, so garbage piled up in the streets and alleys. It cost $1.6 million to clear the trash. BND

Thirty years ago, East St. Louis was in financial meltdown with $35 million in debt, trash piling up thanks to unpaid bills and paydays being missed because firefighters owed $600,000 in back pay got city accounts frozen. Massive police and firefighter layoffs were discussed and a lawsuit after a jail inmate was beaten cost the city the deed to City Hall.

It was the era of Mayor Carl Officer and attorney Eric Vickers. Bombast accompanied every financial dispute.

Things are quieter now, but some of the same financial storm clouds are gathering.

The city’s ability to pay its workers is again threatened by debt to its firefighters and police. This time it is debt to their pensions.

There are 159 police and firefighter retirees collecting $553,000 each month. The city’s contributions are more than $1 million a year too lean, and the retirees’ lawyer said the funds are at risk of going broke unless he forces payment. Freezing city accounts is his leverage.

Interesting that this is happening as law enforcement gathered to beg the public’s cooperation to solve murders in the city. The city’s homicide toll is 34 so far this year, and 206 that state police helped investigate in the area since 2010.

The pension liabilities of all those past emergency responders could stop current responders from getting paid in a most dangerous place.

This is the kind of financial crisis that led to a state bailout and decades of financial oversight as the city struggled to create a balanced budget with the crutch of a new riverboat casino.

This time, the casino is ailing, the state is ailing infinitely more, and we saw all that fiscal oversight end and the politicians lead the city right back to where things were before. Plus there is more crime, fewer residents and more of them are living below the poverty line — close to half.

East St. Louis is not making it. Government is failing it at the city, county, state and federal level.

There are solutions: consolidated policing, economic development, government transparency, effective education. There’s just no political will to make the city anything other than a vote factory to keep the Democrats in power.

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