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.


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

State Still Deadlocked on Budget

Illinois will ring in the new year with a familiar tune: Deadlock in the Capitol and no state budget.

The only spending agreement reached in two years between bickering Republicans and Democrats, a six-month temporary fix, expires Sunday.

Not only is there no arrangement to fill the void, Gov. Bruce Rauner and his Democratic opponents controlling the General Assembly have hardly talked about it.

Funding for elementary and secondary education was provided through June. But colleges and universities will see state spending dry up. And even though billions of dollars for Medicaid health care is assured, the backlog of bills is so great that hospitals are having an increasingly tougher time staying ahead.

State workers will continue to be paid, but there’s no money to pay utility bills or buy commodities; vendors continue to wait for payment. Those needing mental health, addiction treatment, or senior-living programs will likely wait, too. The private agencies that provide those services continue to wait months for checks to arrive.

“In a lot of areas, things are just breaking apart,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat, said.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly insisted lawmakers must jump aboard with the governor and his agenda for reducing business costs, freezing property taxes and limiting politicians’ power. Those will save money and boost Illinois commerce, says Rauner, a wealthy former private-equity investor.

She challenged Democrats to “break from” House Speaker Michael Madigan “to reach a bipartisan, balanced budget with reforms or continue to force a crisis and higher taxes.”

The two sides have met just a handful of times since last fall and Democrats criticized Rauner for canceling a scheduled conference Dec. 12. He wanted a spending plan from Democrats, but as Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Thursday, “We need to hear from the people who are actually going to spend the money on how they want to spend it and how much they want to spend.”

Madigan, the steel-willed Chicagoan, says Rauner’s ideas shouldn’t be tied to a budget deal.

The Legislature returns to Springfield on Jan. 9 for two final days of the current session before a new General Assembly is sworn in.

John Patterson, spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton, said the Chicago Democrat was surprised by the governor’s nixing the last meeting but hopes they’ll sit down again soon.

“Businesses that work and provide services on behalf of the state deserve to be paid,” Patterson said. “We need to be investing in higher education and preserving our safety net. These are all vital to Illinois being the competitive and compassionate state.”

Source: Springfield, Illinois AP – John O’Connor

Illinois & Local Government Consolidation

In 2016 the topic of local government consolidation became a widespread conversation topic throughout the State of Illinois. While discussions about consolidating units of local government in Illinois was by no means unique to 2016, as rumblings of local government consolidation have been around for decades, but 2016 was different in that the Illinois House passed bi-partisan House Bill 4501, giving authority to consolidate local services and dissolve certain kinds of “unnecessary” government entities to all Illinois counties.

While this bill is now currently awaiting further debate and discussion in the Illinois Senate, there is strong push from numerous government activist groups throughout the state to see this bill through to passage in both congressional houses. Essentially, this bill would take what is already allowed in Dupage County, Illinois and extend it further to each and every county within the State of Illinois. That is, the consolidation of multiple units of local government performing activities in overlapping territories.

Illinois has over 7,000 units of local government, the most of any state in the nation. Undoubtedly, the large number of units of local government is at least partially responsible for the abnormally high property taxes, 3rd highest of any state in the country. Proponents of this bill see this as an opportunity to eliminate large sums of unnecessary property tax and relieve Illinois tax payer burden.

Furthermore, proponents of this consolidation of services see Illinois’ 859 local school districts, which consume nearly two-thirds of the $27 billion in local property taxes collected across the state each year, as candidates for consolidation. According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, a quarter of Illinois school districts serve only a single school, a third serve fewer than 600 students, and more than 40 percent serve only one or two schools.

Research from the Illinois Policy Institute shows that reducing the number of school districts by half could lead to annual operating savings of $130 million to $170 million and could conservatively save the state $3 billion to $4 billion in pension costs over the next 30 years.

However, this bill would not just affect school districts, the same sort of consolidation could theoretically occur with townships, road districts, mosquito-abatement districts, park districts, library districts, among others. Many of the duties and activities of aforementioned taxing districts would be incorporated into county and/or municipal operations.

While cost savings would undoubtedly occur through local government consolidation, they are also many reasons to not jump on the consolidation bandwagon too quickly. Other state’s have experienced unexpected and unintended issues with the consolidation or centralization of government services. As an example,

  1. Cost savings [from consolidation] are often overstated in order to get legislators (and tax payers) or other officials to agree to the change.
  2. Consolidations are always harder and much more complicated than they seem at first. Additionally, they always take much more time that anticipated. In fact, sometimes consolidation or centralization has to be undone because  either the operations are no longer working out and/or the state may be at risk of forfeiting federal funds meant to provide aid to specific units of local government.
  3. One of the biggest problems associated with consolidation is that the people/governments that are being pushed together may not be happy about the situation. This can cause  dozens upon dozens of problems that are too innumerable to cover in one article.

While both sides of the consolidation spectrum have pros and cons, as does about everything, prior to consolidating these local government services rigorous thought and analysis of the implications and consequences must be considered fully. While arguments for cost-savings and  efficiency may be correct to some extent, a one-size-fits-all solution may not actually “solve” anything but create unintended consequences. Local officials must tread the path of consolidation carefully.

Community Supported Businesses (CSB)

The concept of a Community Supported Business (CSB) is now becoming a much more widely applied way of getting smaller businesses off the ground, especially in rural areas and small towns. CSBs are based on a closer relationship with customers than just the simple commercial transaction involved in the sales of products or services. As the word ‘supported’ implies, CSBs not only have a relational, but also a financial connection with their communities, either directly on a personal basis, through an intermediary, or sometimes involving a public agency. The initial concept began with agriculture, but has grown quite substantially and now involves any and all types of business ventures.

A recent report by the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs, active through Western Illinois University, discussed CSBs at length, citing specific examples of how CSBs are beginning to pop up all across the country and for the most part, are quite successful. Some examples of CSBs include the following:


The Gleanery Restaurant – Putney, Vermont (pop. 2,702)
This restaurant uses ingredients from local farmers and producers and is a community-supported restaurant that pays members back in monthly credits at the restaurant. The community supports The Gleanery, The Gleanery supports the local economy, the local economy benefits from a destination restaurant, and more money recirculates through Putney.

Awaken Café – Oakland, California
This particular venue provides live music, an espresso bar, craft beer & wine bar, and organic restaurant in downtown Oakland, California, with the mission to bring people together and launch movements. The owners pre-sold gift cards, which, priced at $1,000, could be redeemed for $1,250 once the café opened.
Although this particular cafe CSB is located in a larger community,  the model that is utilized could be applicable to smaller rural communities as well.

The Bee’s Knees – Morrisville, Vermont (pop. 2,030)
The Bee’s Knees restaurant has functioned successfully  only because of direct community and local support. In exchange for a $1,000 loan, investors receive coupons that they can redeem for meals at the rate of $90 a quarter over three years. This is a meager return on investment, but in the first six weeks of launch, the Bee’s Knees restaurant raised $20,000.

Although there are dozens of different types of CSBs that exist, the above list provides a few that could be easily applicable to rural communities in South Central Illinois. However, as a note, other CSB ventures have included: bakeries, local grocery stores, large fisheries, banks, book stores, community newspapers, art and/or history museums and even some community supported manufacturing facilities.

For even for information about Community Supported Businesses you can review the recent Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs report which can be found here.

A Mother’s Will To Win

It’s easy to get cynical about Illinois politics.

Frustration is the norm in Springfield. Optimism is an emotional liability.

But Lisa Creason doesn’t play by those rules. When it comes to politics in the Land of Lincoln, the single mom from Decatur just pulled off the biggest underdog story of 2016. She drove to Springfield nearly every day of legislative session for two years to fight for her family.

And she won.

Lisa’s story is one of redemption, starting with a crime she committed more than 20 years ago.

She stole money from a Subway cash register when she was 19 to buy food for her newborn daughter. She spent one year in prison.

A stray bullet killed her fiancé in 2002. She raised three kids on her own, started an anti-violence nonprofit and went to nursing school.

On the day she graduated, she called her mother in tears. She thought she could finally move her children out of Section 8 housing, out of a dangerous neighborhood and off government assistance. She thought her hard work had finally paid off.

But then, it all came tumbling down.

Because of a law passed in 2011, Lisa’s teenage crime denied her the chance to apply for the state license she needed to become a registered nurse.

“To be told after all we’ve been through that I wasn’t good enough … it was devastating,” she said.

But she didn’t give up. Instead, she began fighting for Senate Bill 42, which would allow ex-offenders such as herself to apply for a license to work in the health care field after a post-conviction waiting period.

After an ex-offender’s application is received, the state licensing board would still consider a number of factors in granting the license, such as the seriousness of the offense, overall criminal history, whether restitution was made to a victim and signs of rehabilitation.

But Lisa has bona fides in spades.

Amy Snyder is Lisa’s former caseworker, and frequent co-pilot on her trips to Springfield. She’s proud of the example Lisa sets for others, showing it’s possible to break a cycle of crime and dependency with a positive attitude and a giving spirit.

Lieutenant Shane Brandel of the Decatur Police Department is proud of Lisa’s tenacity. The two have been close since Brandel investigated the death of Lisa’s fiancé.

“I applaud her for her efforts,” he said. “Most people would just give up.”

Unfortunately, hopelessness is a major byproduct of Illinois’ criminal-justice system.

Of the 30,000 people who leave Illinois prisons each year, nearly half return within three years. Studies show as many as 60 percent to 75 percent of former offenders are unemployed a year after their release.

Thankfully, Lisa has been able to work as a nursing assistant for more than a decade. A job can make all the difference between a life of freedom and a life of crime.

Illinois ex-offenders who are employed a year after release have a recidivism rate as low as 16 percent, according to research from the Safer Foundation. It’s concerning then that Illinois has at least 118 professional and business licenses applicants can or must be denied due to their criminal history.

That’s why reforms such as SB 42 are so important. That’s why instead of leaving the state for greener pastures, Lisa stood and fought for more than just herself.

“This isn’t just me,” Lisa said. “There are all types of productive careers that ex-offenders are prevented from pursuing. It’s time we stop beating the same drum. It’s not working, and the music is not pretty.”

It’s been more than a year since SB 42 passed out of the Illinois Senate. On May 26, 2016, it passed the House. And as of June 1, the only hurdle that remains is the governor’s signature.

To Lisa and Illinoisans like her, it’s more than a bill.

In a state that’s short on opportunities, it’s reason to hope.

Austin Berg, writer for Illinois Policy Institute