Levee districts seek court approval for fee increase to fix agin - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Levee districts seek court approval for fee increase to fix aging levees

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UNION COUNTY, IL (KFVS) -

A judge will decide whether or not four levee districts can raise rates to repair the aging levee system.

The Preston, Clear Creek, East Cape/McClure, and North Alexander Levee and Drainage Districts have petitioned the court for an increase in the annual maintenance fee charged to residents, farmers and businesses within each district.

The goal of the increase is to raise enough money to reline 20 drainage pipes that run through the Mississippi River levee in Union and northern Alexander Counties.

Levee commissioners say the current tax revenue collected supplies the levee districts with just enough funding to mow the levees and maintain the levee roads; not enough to make necessary repairs and improvements.

“We've gone after grants, we've explored all avenues, and it's just not there anymore,” said Clear Creek Levee commissioner Mitchel McLane. “We can't wait for the government to do it, we've gotta help ourselves.”

The proposed maintenance tax increase will impact farmers the most. The annual maintenance fee will go from $2.50 per acre/per year to $7 per acre.

“No one wants a tax increase in any industry, especially farming, but we don't see any other way around this,” said Preston Levee District commissioner Randy Lambdin.

McLane is a levee commissioner and farmer. He says his annual payment will increase $6,000 under the new tax rate, but he says he would rather pay that amount annually than lose everything.

“If [the levee] broke in the worst possible spot, we would lose millions in property value,” said McLane. “Some farms would be totally worthless. A million dollar farm could be wiped out.”

Commissioners say getting ahead of the problem will also save money in the long run.

“We're on the brink of disaster, really,” McLane said. “I think Grand Tower really opened everybody's eyes. We can repair all of our structures in this entire river bottom for what Grand Tower is going to spend on one structure.”

A giant hole developed in Grand Tower's levee back in 2013 after a levee drain failed, causing a collapse. The cost to repair the breech could exceed $1.7 million dollars.

Levee commissioners say making repairs to 21 drains in the four Union and Alexander County levee districts would cost $1.2 million.

Farmers would bear the brunt, but would not be the only group paying a higher levee tax. Homeowners would pay an additional $16.25 per year and business or industrial entities in the area would pay an additional $41.25 - $57.50 per year per commercial or industrial lot.

Students at nearby Shawnee High School are working to spread the word about the proposed tax increase. Seniors are going door-to-door, speaking with friends and neighbors to share what they've learned about the aging levee system.

“In the long run, it's gonna get them lots of money to reline the pipes which extends their lives tremendously,” said Shawnee senior Elijah Boren. “They're already past their life expectancy from when they were put in.”

The drain pipes were designed to last 50 years. They're now more than 70 years old. In the past, Shawnee students have held fundraisers, sold T-shirts, and even written letters to Congress in hopes of finding money to fix the levee system.

The student's efforts have not been able to secure enough funding to make the necessary repairs, which is why teachers say the students are standing behind the proposed tax increase.

“I think the students realize they're not just doing an activity in their Social Science class. They're helping to save their communities,” said teacher Jamie Nash-Mayberry. “They take a lot of pride when they go door-to-door and talk to their neighbors and families about why the tax increase is a good thing.”

Union County Judge Mark Boie will hear the case on September 3, and could make a decision on whether or not to raise the annual maintenance assessment as early as that day.

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