Thebes: Buried in fiscal rubble

Thursday, July 28, 2005

THEBES, Ill. -- The old Alexander County Courthouse still presides regally over the Mississippi River in Thebes, but today the empty building overlooks a town that has fallen on hard times.

The village of Thebes has undergone a slow decline over the years, which some residents say began in 1926 when a devastating flood washed out the railroad tracks and ruined several local businesses. Others blame the state's consolidation of rural school districts. The school in Thebes closed its doors for good in 1968, but the crumbling building still stands, reminding some of what used to be.

More recently, things have gotten much worse for Thebes. Last Friday, the IRS seized all of the village's assets because it had not paid payroll taxes on city employees in four years. Mayor Anthony Scott Bomar said the village paid the $51,000 it owed in back taxes on Wednesday after the village treasurer worked with the IRS to unfreeze some accounts specifically for paying back the debt.

When he took office last April, Bomar said, he inherited much more than he expected.

"I knew the town wasn't in very good shape, but I had no idea how bad off we were," he said.

Thebes' recent financial problems have been building for some time, Bomar said. Just two weeks after he took office, he received a letter from Atmos Energy threatening to shut off gas to the entire village because of $57,000 in unpaid gas bills. Bomar said 24 households owed most of the bill. Notices were sent to the residents asking them to pay up or the village would pull the plug.

Many people paid, but Bomar said two houses eventually had their utilities cut off, and a few residents moved out of town completely without paying their bills.

In the 2000 census, Thebes had a population of 478. Two years later the population was estimated at 466.

So far, Bomar said, the village has managed to pay all but about $18,000 to the gas company.

He said the large debt accumulated because village officials previously had not followed the policy of turning off utilities when bills were unpaid.

"From what I understand it just never was addressed," Bomar said. "They knew about the problem and just chose not to do anything about it."

Collecting these bills is important not only to the gas company, but also to Thebes, Bomar said, because the village gets the majority of its revenue from water, sewage and electricity payments. The village collects no sales tax revenue because there aren't any businesses in town anymore.

"You cannot buy a loaf of bread in Thebes," Bomar said.

Bomar said the village board is working on an ordinance to raise water and sewer rates. The ordinance should go into effect in the next two months.

A few more hopeful signs also are on the horizon for Thebes. Bomar said the village has secured funding from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to tear down the dilapidated school house, which is filled with asbestos. He said the building should be demolished in about three weeks.

"It's a danger to kids in the community," Bomar said. "We've been trying to get it torn down for years, and no one's been able to do this, but finally we're getting the ball in play."

He hopes the soon-to-be empty lot will attract businesses or be used for other types of community development, such as low-income housing.

Janice Houston, executive director of the Handmaidens of Christ faith-based social outreach ministry in Thebes, has been working with the village through her program to write grants that may pull the village out of its slump. She said the grants she's working on could help to one day reopen the old courthouse for tourism, attract new small businesses and expand a campground that already sits at the edge of the river. But for now, the village is starting small.

"Right now we're working on a project to clean up the town, where we'll just pick a day to do some trash cleanup," she said.

Thebes is also sponsoring its first mud race and family picnic on Aug. 13, with all the proceeds from admission prices, registration fees and concessions going to the village. Bomar isn't sure how much money the races will raise, but he hopes it will help in some way to put the village back on its feet.

wmcferron@semissourian.com

335-6611 ext. 127

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