Forgotten Illinois: Newton and the reality of America’s heartland

Members of the Newton, Ill., Rotary Club meet for lunch every Tuesday at noon in a backroom of Parklanes, a local bowling alley.

Meetings begin with a prayer, a group rendition of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and handshakes throughout the room. You can hardly hear the bowling pins falling while community leaders and concerned
citizens eat their lunches and discuss with each other the happenings of the city.

They’re focused; brought together out of concern for their nearly 200-year-old city. Newton faces many of the same trends as other downstate communities. Jobs have left, residents have moved, and politicians aren’t listening.

The sense of community, though, remains strong. Jonathan Broscious, a pastor at Newton’s New Hope Church, moved to the city in 2013 after attending school in Pennsylvania and growing up in the Washington, D.C., area. His wife grew up in Newton, and the city’s strong sense of community has made Broscious happy to call Newton home.

“I went to the bank – this was maybe six months after I moved here – and I went to make a deposit,” Broscious recalled. “I’m not the kind of person who has his account numbers memorized or whatever, so I walk up to the teller – and I’ve never talked to this girl ever before in my life. And I walk up to her, and I say, ‘Hey, I need to make a deposit but I don’t know what my bank account number is. I can give you my driver’s license or my debit card or something if you needed to figure it out.’

“And she said, ‘Oh no, I got it; what account do you want me to put it in?’ She knew exactly who I was because evidently she’d seen me walking with my wife and knew who my wife was.”

It’s not difficult to recognize people in Newton, a city of 2,800 people covering less than 2 square miles. The close-knit feeling is everywhere.

IMG_4196-1024x683.jpg“One thing that’s always amazed me about Newton is how people take care of each other,” said Scott Bierman, who owns PS Realty in Newton with his wife, June. “There was an older guy here recently who was really beloved by a lot of people but he got sick. They raised $68,000 for him in one night. In one night. It’s always really cool to see people come together like that.”

But while Newton boasts small town camaraderie, it also suffers from the same problems as many other Rust Belt communities. The city has a largely blue-collar economy, which has suffered mightily over the past several decades.

Much of Newton’s story probably sounds familiar to other towns across Middle America.

In 1977, a coal plant opened, providing revenue and jobs for Newton, which then had a little more than 3,000 residents. Five years later, the plant expanded, adding a second unit and creating more jobs. For years after, the dual-unit, 1,200-megawatt coal plant accounted for a plurality of Newton’s property tax revenue.

A partial shutdown of the coal plant in 2016 accounted for nearly 50 lost jobs and a drop in tax revenue, but the plant is still a large part of the community’s economy.

Concerns falling on deaf ears

“That power plant pays 45 percent of our property taxes,” Newton MayIMG_4178-1024x683or Mark Bolander said. “So when [Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton] stands up and says goodbye to the coal industry, that’s insulting to us. That hits home.”

Bolander referred to a comment Clinton made in May 2016 that if elected, her administration was “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Whether it’s coal jobs vanishing or manufacturing jobs relocating over the nearby Indiana border, the feeling is the same. The concerns of this tight-knit community often fall on deaf ears in Springfield and Washington, D.C.

Newton may be being ignored because of the political makeup of the state – where the voting patterns of the heavily populated Cook County and Chicagoland area dictate many policy outcomes – but residents in Newton are in tune with what’s happening downstate and throughout the country.

“This county used to be blue,” Bolander said, “and it’s very much red now because of attitudes like (Clinton’s).”

That’s not an exaggeration. Jasper County went for the Democratic presidential nominee as recently as 1992, and stayed relatively competitive in subsequent elections. But in the 2016 presidential election nearly 80 percent of the county voted for Republican nominee, and now president, Donald Trump.

People in Newton have largely stayed the same, but circumstances haven’t. Bolander, like many of his neighbors, has lived in Newton his whole life, but was finally spurred to action 12 years ago, when he and a group of concerned citizens decided to run for local office.

“I wasn’t happy,” Bolander said. “Businesses were closing, young people leaving for college and not coming back… I didn’t feel like we had the right mindset to grow our community.”

Uncompetitive in the Midwest

Newton, though declining in population since the 1980 census, is the only city in Jasper County. Founded in 1835, it’s also the seat for a county less than an hour’s drive from Indiana, and just a few hours from Kentucky.

Bolander owns a manufacturing business and has some operations in Indiana. He sees the discrepancy in competitiveness between Illinois and Indiana firsthand. Bolander said he pays $5 per $100 payroll in Indiana for workers’ compensation costs, versus $15 per $100 payroll in Illinois.

But leaving Newton isn’t something to consider for lifelong residents, many of whom are concerned about the area’s jobs climate and prospects.

“Most of the people here have lived here in Jasper County their whole life,” Scott Bierman said.

Working in realty, Scott and June have noticed the business climate change, and what might be contributing to it.

“The biggest concerns (for residents) are probably that our jobs don’t leave and the property taxes being too high,” Scott said.

Newton has an average property tax rate of about 1.3 percent, meaning a homeowner with a $150,000 house would pay about $2,000 annually in property taxes. That’s actually better than some of the surrounding counties and statewide, but it’s much higher than Terre Haute, Ind., just about 40 minutes away. And it’s more than twice as high as Paducah, Ky., which is only a few hours south.

Keeping the community together

“The big concern is everything leaving,” said Roni Myers, owner of local bar MVP Happy Holler. “People do move out, businesses leave and the taxes go with that. But we all try to stick together.”IMG_4131-1024x683

“Our community is wonderful. They will stand by and help anyone who needs it. If someone’s sick, if anyone needs help, people really chip in.”

Myers, whose bar is just within the city limits, has battled the state over liquor and gaming licenses. Nevertheless she’s been able to create a successful, popular business in the Newton area. On some nights, she’ll have as many as 400 or 500 customers at a time, many of which are regulars and many who call Newton home.IMG_4160-1024x683

Sticking together is commonplace in the 182-year-old city. Still, some of the tougher conditions of the state and region are visible, though not defining.

“Every Tuesday morning, I help out at the food pantry in town that one of my congregation members started,” Broscious said. “It’s amazing how many people are coming through there and what percentage of our county is at or near the poverty level. People are doing everything they can but a lot of the times it seems like the deck is stacked against them.”

“I love the town. I love the people,” he continued. “I think that it’s a great town, but there is sometimes just dryness to it. There’s just a dry feeling there – spiritually, emotionally; it’s just tough. Money doesn’t fix any problems, but sometimes it can mask them… If you have money you can distract yourself a lot easier, it doesn’t necessarily mean the problem goes away. But when you’re living in poverty, which a huge section of our county is… well, that makes that process a lot tougher, and you have nothing to mask your problems with. And they become a lot more evident and there’s a desperation that starts bleeding through. I see that.”

It’s politicians who don’t see that. Residents of Newton – working together, helping each other out and bonding, whether at Rotary Club meetings at Parklanes, MVP Happy Holler or anywhere else – see the reality in front of them.

Source: Illinois Policy Institute

Agriculture and the Illinois Economy

Agriculture’s impact on the state’s economy ripples beyond fields and livestock buildings to the industries and services that support farmers. In turn, those industries and services provide jobs and economic stability across Illinois, especially in rural areas.

Illinois agriculture accounted for one of every 17 jobs in the state and contributed $120.9 billion in sales to the state economy, according to a 2015 Decision Innovation Solutions study.

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Some major agribusinesses are well known here and elsewhere, while others’ recognition resonates in the agriculture sector they support and the communities they call home.

For example, Automated Production (AP) System ships swine feed storage and delivery systems across the country and to global customers from Christian County. Its parent company, Grain Systems Inc., operates its global headquarters and a 1-million-square-foot plant in Assumption. In Illinois, the company employs 750, including 200 in Taylorville.

“We ship globally from the Taylorville plant to South America, Europe, Asia and North America” to customers whose orders specify “U.S. quality,” said Tom Stutham, AP swine product management director. The Taylorville plant, which opened in 2007, annually ships $100 million worth of products, according to Stutham.

Effingham County serves as home base for FarmWeld Inc., which manufactures swine equipment, including feeders, waterers, gates and flooring. A large portion of the company’s sales is centered in Illinois, but FarmWeld also sells to farmers throughout the Midwest and the U.S., as well as some international ones, according to Frank Brummer, president of FarmWeld. In 2016, FarmWeld enjoyed a “positive year,” and Brummer attributed part of that success to long-term employees who function as a team.

Operating in Teutopolis since 1979, FarmWeld employs 45 people in positions ranging from sales and marketing to engineers, welders and general laborers who reside in seven counties.

The vitality of the pork industry is critical for both downstate companies.

“As more barns are built in Illinois, it increases our chance to supply equipment within our own state,” Brummer said. “FarmWeld is looking to expand our facilities in 2017, and bring some outsourced processes inhouse and add more great people to our team to support our growth.”

Stutham added: AP “enjoys great success in Illinois, from producers who desire to work with local companies. We’re very interested in seeing livestock production grow in Illinois. When swine (production) expands, we definitely feel it and prosper.”

Based on sales volume, Iowa and Minnesota comprise the largest markets for AP swine products, he noted.

Given the status of Illinois’ economy, especially in rural areas, supporting local business is crucial, both executives noted.

“We employ a lot of your neighbors and your customers in our factory,” said AP’s Stutham. “The animal agriculture industry is a major contributor to Illinois and to rural communities. We’re proud to employ these citizens in our factories. Trade with our company and others like ours.”

Brummer agreed: “Supporting local businesses in rural Illinois invests part of your dollars back into your state to help build infrastructure, better schools and more. Buying from Illinois companies is the easiest humanitarian effort you can take part in, and it will positively affect your neighbors and community.”

Asked how policymakers can support rural companies such as theirs, Stutham and Brummer took different approaches.

“Grants are a way to support businesses in rural Illinois,” Brummer said. “Invest in those that are investing in themselves.”

Stutham mentioned his customers: “Animal agriculture needs a common-sense approach to siting … Everyone wants to be good stewards. Make regulations that are common sense, and understand how legislation can have unintended and severe impacts.”

Source: FarmWeekNow

Illinois: Highest Overall Tax Burden in the Nation

A March 14th, 2017 report has found that the State of Illinois has the highest combined state and local tax burden among all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This report combines state and local  taxes to create an overall effective tax rate for the median household in each state.

According to the report, the median Illinois household pays approximately $8,162 in annual state and local taxes, including sales taxes, property taxes and income taxes. This includes the highest combine state and local tax rate in the nation of an effective 14.76 percent on the average median household. This tax rate is found to be 37.66 percent larger than the U.S. state average.

Wallet Hub also developed an interactive map illustrating the tax burden ranking for each U.S. State and the District of Columbia. The ranking goes from “1” to “51”, with “1” being the lowest tax burden and “51” being the highest. Please click the link below to view the interact map.

Interactive Tax Burden Map

WalletHub used several taxes to calculate Illinois’ percentage; however, the most damning was the property tax. Illinois ranked second-worst in the nation for property taxes. People in homes with the U.S. median home value pay $4,105 annually in Illinois, according to WalletHub. Illinois’ crushing property taxes combined with income and sales taxes make the Prairie State the most taxed in the country. 

And high taxes are driving Illinoisans to the border. From 2006 to 2015, a net 700,000 people migrated out of Illinois. Polling by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute showed 47 percent of Illinoisans want to leave the state, and the single biggest reason is Illinois’ high tax burden. 

Source: Illinois Policy