Madison County board member scolds Costello over flood plain bill

Steve Korris Oct. 23, 2009, 7:00am


Congressman Jerry Costello should be ashamed of himself for sponsoring a bill that would advance his son's business interest in a proposed mall at Glen Carbon, according to Madison County Board member Helen Hawkins.

"I don't think it's right a Congressman should be pulling strings in Washington while his son is reaping benefits," Hawkins said in a phone interview Oct. 22.

At a county board meeting on Oct. 21, she voted alone against 28 who adopted a resolution in favor of Costello's bill.

She said she remembered the flood of 1993 and started to cry.

Hawkins, a Democrat, is 79 and lives in Granite City.

"They all expected a big speech," she said. "I just said no."

Costello's bill would keep the Federal Emergency Management Agency from applying new technology to old maps for better understanding of flood risks.

Opponents say the bill works to the advantage of John Costello, the Congressman's son, because he belongs to a group planning a 900 acre mall along Bluff Road known as University Town Center.

Bruce Holland is president of the development group.

"While the bill is being represented as keeping residents living in the bottom from having to pay for flood insurance," said Kathy Andria, president of American Bottom Conservancy, "it would leave them essentially unprotected from a flood."

Andria said that freezing the old FEMA maps would allow development in the floodplain, such as University Town Center, to continue unabated.

"Such development only puts increased water and risk on existing communities," she said.

"If they really want to help citizens who live in the floodplain, they would craft a bill that subsidizes flood insurance for those who cannot afford it," Andria said. "Or they could give tax credits—something, anything--to help those who are at risk. Allowing development to continue in a floodplain with bad levees is not only unwise, it is irresponsible."

Hawkins said, "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know" what the 900 acre development would do to residents in the floodplain.

Other kinds of scientists agree with Hawkins.

The Illinois Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management opposes a bill in the Illinois legislature that would provide state financing for mall bonds.

Chairman Jeffrey Wickenkamp wrote to Gov. Pat Quinn in August that the bill was "trading a short term gain for developers for long term exposure for all of us."

Their national organization urged Quinn not to sign the bill, writing that they shared concerns of the Illinois chapter about loss of life and property damages.

Geology professor Nicholas Pinter of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale wrote to Quinn that the goal of economic development "hides details that sacrifice public well being in order to enrich a small majority."

Seven other SIU professors and six from around the state signed the letter.

At hearings in Springfield last spring, Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club opposed the sales tax and revenue (STAR) bonds bill.

The bill would return the state's five percent share of the mall's sales taxes to the mall so the developers can repay the bonds.

The bill specifies a mall with more than $300 million a year in retail sales, so Costello's group could expect to collect at least $15 million a year.

Instead of signing the bill, Quinn offered an amendatory veto that would split the sales tax with Costello's group on a 50-50 basis.

Legislators met in veto session Oct. 14 to 16, but didn't touch the mall bonds.

The veto session resumes next week.

Meanwhile, Congressman Costello advances his bill and Hawkins resists.

"Jerry Costello has been good for my district," she said.

"I consider him more of a friend," she said.

"This is an issue I totally disagree with him on," she said.

"I can honestly say you are wrong, you should be ashamed of yourself," she said.

She said she moved to the area in 1964 and needed a big house.

"We bought in the wrong place but we didn't know," she said.

"Water crawls up the walls," she said.

"Everything seeks the lowest level and that's why they call it the American bottom," she said.

"It's not just the homes," she said. "It's people's lives."

She said another Katrina could happen here.

"Those people haven't been taken care of yet," she said.

She said she carried 45 gallons of chili to sandbaggers during the great flood of 1993.

"I'm almost 80 but I don't forget a thing," she said.

She said mayors oppose the mall but won't come forward because they might lose grants.

"If they don't watch out, they will lose a lot more than that," she said.

She said everybody is tight lipped.

"Lots of people wouldn't open their mouths if their lives depended on it," she said.

"This thing has been coming up and I have tried to make changes to benefit the bottom," she said.

"I have become their enemy and I didn't know I was," she said.

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