© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Cahokia Heights residents allege racial bias over St. Clair County COVID relief spending

Illinois American Water provides drinking water to residents in the former city of Centreville, pictured on Friday, Oct. 20, 2023, that is now part of Cahokia Heights, Ill. In some neighborhoods heavy rain forces sewers to overflow, spilling onto the ground near buried water pipes.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
The former city of Centreville, pictured in October 2023, is now part of Cahokia Heights. In some neighborhoods, heavy rain forces sewers to overflow, flooding homes.

A group of residents of what’s now Cahokia Heights allege St. Clair County violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by not spending enough of its federal COVID relief money on the city’s decrepit flood and waste water systems.

Centreville Citizens for Change, who’ve also filed two lawsuits against the City of Cahokia Heights, lodged its new federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Treasury in late November.

The allegations center around the roughly $50.4 million St. Clair County received from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law in early 2021.

The residents said in their complaint that the Metro East county could have contributed federal dollars toward ending the decadeslong issue of faulty sewer systems and inadequate drainage in the majority Black neighborhoods.

“Instead, the County made a deliberate and discriminatory choice to ignore these failing infrastructure issues,” the complaint reads. “It opted to spend 98% of its ARPA funds on projects in predominantly white communities that were less urgent and important, including fixing flooding issues in an animal shelter, rather than fixing flooding issues for Black residents.”

Centreville Citizens for Change said in the complaint the county’s spending violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The section states that no person, based on their race, color or national origin, can be excluded, denied or discriminated against by federal assistance.

The residents want the Treasury Department, responsible for administering the funds, to investigate the group's allegations and “take all necessary steps to ensure that St. Clair County eliminates racial discrimination” in its spending of ARPA funds.

Officials with the Treasury Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday morning. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, who is named in the complaint, also did not immediately respond.

The St. Clair County Administration Building on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, in Belleville.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Clair County Administration Building last May in Belleville

As of November, St. Clair County allocated $47.9 million of the $50.4 million it got from the federal government, according to the complaint. The projects funded include $14 million toward redeveloping the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville and $9.3 million toward improving the St. Clair County Courthouse, according to the Belleville News-Democrat.

Others include $4.3 million earmarked to construct a new home for the St. Clair County Animal Control facility after the old location flooded this summer. That decision drew strong rebuke from Centreville residents.

“The county placed Belleville’s pets over the human beings in Centreville and displayed an unsettling ability to ignore the suffering of its Black constituents,” said Conor Vance, one of a couple New York University law students who helped author the complaint with the residents’ local attorneys.

St. Clair County allocated roughly $855,000 to Cahokia Heights to replace the existing water tower, according to the complaint. However, it has not started that project.

Overall, the county allocated $32 million to towns with majority white populations and $15.1 million to county projects, according to the complaint. St. Clair County’s white population is 64.2% of the total, while the Black population is 30.8%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This latest development follows years of residents’ complaints of neglect in what used to be Centreville but later merged with Alorton and Cahokia in 2021 to form Cahokia Heights.

Public health agencies at the local and state level have done little to nothing for residents who’ve long complained about sewage backing up in their homes, which has made them sick, the News-Democrat reported. Preliminary studies show those residents have been exposed to bacteria and parasites in sewage and flooding.

Work funded by an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency grant was expected to start by the end of the year to rehabilitate sewer stations across the city.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named a federal coordinator to oversee the response to the city’s chronic problems in October. The federal agency took similar action and appointed a coordinator in Flint, Michigan, where lead contamination created a public health emergency.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.