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A Green New Deal for Decatur IL

Sandra Lindberg

A Green New Deal for Decatur IL

Efforts to pass a Green New Deal in Washington D.C. align with important elections in Decatur this spring. Three candidates are running for mayor, and a slate of candidates are vying for open seats on City Council. So far, none of these candidates have spoken of the Green New Deal (GND), a strange state of affairs given the GND’s potential to help Decatur with some of its worst problems. The federal GND proposes to fund the ambitious programs it calls for by using a method successfully employed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, funding that primarily will come from the federal government “using a combination of the Federal Reserve, a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks, public venture funds and such other vehicles or structures that the select committee deems appropriate, in order to ensure that interest and other investment returns generated from public investments made in connection with the Plan will be returned to the treasury, reduce taxpayer burden and allow for more investment.” If Decatur begins planning to apply GND ideas to our city, the city is likely to foot little of the bill.

Decatur IL, a rustbelt city in Central Illinois, badly needs a GND suited to its unique strengths and serious challenges. Like so many cities, Decatur is struggling with a shrinking tax base. The city, as so many in Illinois have done, now allows video gambling as a way to raise tax revenue. The strategy is only one example of the community’s current need to increase the amount of money it can raise through taxes. One mayoral candidate, David Horn, has decried the proliferation of video gambling establishments but vowed, if elected, that the revenue from the machines would be used to revitalize the city’s housing and infrastructure. With GND support, a mayor like Horn could take his plans for the city even further.

Decatur needs to prepare for more than weather extremes as it plans for the effects of climate change. Food production will be threatened by a changed climate, a reality that will seriously increase the cost of food as farmers across the country face volatile growing conditions. Also impacted will be Decatur’s three major corporations, Caterpillar, Tate & Lyle and Archer Daniels Midland, first because their access to supplies will be altered by climate change, as will the prices they pay, and second because these three corporations, as 25% of shipping in the US does, relies on the Mississippi River and New Orleans, Houston and Galveston ports to ship products around the world. Additionally, Decatur is home to 27 manufacturing companies with shipping needs of their own. The federal report “Our Changing Climate” sums up economic challenges climate change will bring with the following,

Nationally important assets, such as ports [author’s italics], tourism, and fishing sites, in already-vulnerable coastal locations, are increasingly exposed to sea level rise and related hazards. This threatens to disrupt economic activity within coastal areas and the regions they serve [author’s italics] and results in significant costs from protecting or moving these assets.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the Mississippi River is in danger of changing course. New Orleans is already planning to raise its docks and build ever higher flood walls as part of its preparations for climate change. However, if coastal cities cannot successfully mitigate for climate change in ways like these, Decatur’ companies and workers will be directly and powerfully impacted by coastal change. And the longer the country waits to rein in CO2, the more mitigation will cost. In 2017 sixteen extreme weather events in the US, including Hurricane Harvey, brought destruction of over $300 million, a record year for US storm damage.

Those hoping 2018 was a fluke should think again. The Army Corps of Engineers and scientists studying the Mississippi point to sediment build-up above and below the Old River Control Structure that currently keeps the Mississippi flowing in its current channel. Hydrologist Yi-Jun Xu at Louisiana State University reports that one bad flood could overwhelm the Control Structure, diverting the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya and making the New Orleans water supply too salty for drinking or industry use. Meanwhile, the oil industry in Texas has successfully lobbied state and federal government to build structures that will protect their coastal refineries--so the fossil fuel industry can safely continue to exacerbate climate change. The coastal “spine” is expected to cost $12 billion and construction has already begun with no certainty the structure can successfully protect refineries from the next mega-storm.

In addition to addressing Decatur’s very local issues, the city could use GND funds to prepare in advance for the economic disruptions climate change will bring to manufacturing, shipping, and the supply of food for the local population. Before such profound effects roll across the most vulnerable areas of the US, Decatur would be wise to develop the healthiest and most resilient local economy it can. In other words, Decatur will be powerfully impacted by climate change’s earlier effects on more distant parts of the US.

Rising sea levels along the coasts are expected by the Internal Revenue Service to send 13 million Americans inland looking for new homes. Matthew Hauer, University of Georgia demographer providing research for the IRS, notes that though large cities nearer the coasts will be forced to absorb most of the migrants, cities in Illinois also will need to prepare for people who may arrive with few resources at their disposal. Decatur, already struggling with poverty and housing issues, must prepare for even more than its current challenges. As the federal Climate Assessment Report notes, “Vulnerability to climate change is exacerbated by other stresses such as pollution, habitat fragmentation, and poverty. Adaptation to multiple stresses requires assessment of the composite threats as well as tradeoffs amongst costs, benefits, and risks of available options.” The GND would support Decatur as it begins its planning before climate change worsens the city’s existing challenges.

Preparing for a climate emergency now will also protect Decatur’s civil liberties. Unfortunately, disasters and chaos often become reasons the powerful promote to erode the democratic process. People in Decatur planning together in advance could strengthen the community’s commitment to democracy. Currently, experts in business, real estate, and banking dominate how Decatur approaches its problems. Climate change, the result of the current economic system, requires a more inclusive set of experts and viewpoints to craft mitigation and adaptation strategies, as well as all city inhabitants to adopt CO2 reducing strategies that will help the entire community. With significant participation of local workers and residents, the threat of climate change could actually further citizen participation in Decatur. Democratic process is a key part of the GND, another reason to support its passage.

Some of Decatur’s most entrenched socio-economic problems would be addressed if the GND passes.

Decatur could apply federal and local incentives to revitalize the center of our city, where many of the city’s African Americans live. Decatur’s African American population is 20%. Currently, the City has a list of 130 properties in serious need of demolition, 720 bankrupt or derelict properties the City or County controls, and almost 5,000 housing units that are unoccupied. The number of homeless in Decatur stands at over 160, with 20 of those living on the street and the rest in shelters or transitional housing. The number of homeless families has tripled in the last two years, from 20 to 60. Almost 3,000 people, or 6% of Decatur’s population is unemployed, a rate almost 2% higher than the rest of Illinois. Among African Americans, the poverty rate is 35%, whether working or not. These are the people who will be hit hardest as the fierce storms, floods and heatwaves of climate change worsen. They would be devastated by increasing prices of heating and cooling costs, transportation, food and supplies of all kinds. Decatur, with support from GND funds, could address its most difficult urban challenges before the worst of climate change arrives at its doors.

With federal funds, Decatur could build solar sites on the 33 brownfields where companies have left town, but their pollution remains. Other federal resources would pay to train local unemployed residents to build and maintain new solar installations. The City could move forward with its plans to conserve electricity and install solar on City buildings, a strategy a local electrical consultant is already helping the city to develop.

With a portion of the funds provided by the GND, Decatur could provide no- or low-interest loans to homeowners to repair their decaying houses. These loans could mandate energy conservation techniques as part of the repairs. All that home improvement would help local property values. This year Decatur ranked nationally as having a median property value of $80,300, unlike the national average of over $200,000.

Again, with federal programs, Decatur could complete the separation of sewer and storm run-off lines mandated by federal regulations but too expensive a fix for Decatur to attempt except at a glacial pace. The completed separation of these lines will greatly improve the city’s ability to handle sudden and heavy rains. The rest of such federal infrastructure funding could pay for an upgraded nitrate removal plan for the drinking water in Lake Decatur to keep citizens safe from polluted water and its dangerous effects.

State and/or federal funding could spark an urban agriculture program within Decatur city limits. The three major governmental entities in Decatur--the City, school district and park district, could allocate or rent significant acreage to the urban farms and allow Decatur to provide, with the help of hoop house agriculture, reasonable, organic and year-round fruits and vegetables to city residents. These programs could provide extensive employment opportunities to under- and unemployed residents, or to young people who want to begin careers growing food.

Decatur could partner with Macon County and farm associations to identify large farms in danger of failing, and help these farms to convert to smaller, more efficient and organic human food production. Already in the Midwest a research group called the Land Institute is promoting the growth of a perennial wheat called Kernza. Local government could innovate methods to increase the amount of perennial grains grown on land surrounding Macon County.

Decatur could utilize state and/or federal funding to plan, implement and subsidize short-rail, electric passenger routes between Decatur and nearby cities in Illinois. Currently, Decatur offers no passenger rail at all, a strange reality given that the City’s icon is a restored passenger rail ticket station. Transportation dollars could pay for electric vans and buses that would expand public transportation in Decatur. Some of the money could underwrite charging stations for electric vehicles and help local car dealers to install electric vehicle repair stations in their shops. These new business components could provide further jobs for Decatur residents. The funds could also be used as collateral for loans that would allow Decatur to develop manufacturing companies specializing in affordable, electric, small-agriculture machinery. Our city is blessed with incredible knowledge of manufacturing. GND dollars could help Decatur transition its manufacturing to products suited for the new, renewable energy future.

GND dollars could allow Decatur to reward local residents who downsize to one or no vehicle households, and/or who replace fossil fuel burning vehicles with electric transportation, including e-assist bikes. Other fiscal rewards could be offered to residents who abandon any use of fossil fuel based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, or who adopt water conservation measures.

The City of Decatur could use GND funds to restore its city forestry program. Though the City’s Urban Forestry web page promises residents can request to have the City plant trees on residential easements, a call to the department revealed it currently has no funds at all to plant new trees and struggles to address needed removal of old and diseased trees. Increasing tree plantings and native plant sites on City property will help to absorb area CO2.

Finally, Decatur could set aside a thoughtful amount of federal and state funds to pay for any attempts made by fossil fuel companies and their allies to bring legal challenges to Decatur’s GND approach. With these earmarked fiscal resources, Decatur need not fear protecting its greener future in the courts.

Regardless of a Decatur residents’ political views, they stand to benefit if the GND passes. Even if Decatur did not receive funds enough for all these initiatives, any one of these funding areas would bring needed help to our economically and environmentally struggling city.

Sandra Lindberg is a writer/activist in Decatur IL. Her ecosocialist views grew from conversations with her Swedish father about socialism, and the troubling environmental stories people told her when she traveled the US as a theatre performer and teacher. While Associate Professor of Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University, she founded No New Nukes to block plans for a second nuclear reactor in Central Illinois – an effort that succeeded. A local socialist reading group helped deepen her understanding of communism, socialism, and ecosocialism. These friends also introduced her to SCNCC, where she has been a contributor for several years. Her writing can be found at System Change Not Climate Change and Solidarity’s Against the Current.
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