Image: Alexander County Sheriff David Barkett, left
Stephen Rickerl  /  AP
Alexander County Sheriff David Barkett, left, talks with his Deputy Sheriff Stephen Thomas, right, and Auxiliary Deputy David Hornberger at the sheriff's department in Cairo, Ill. Barkett this month laid off three-fourths of his staff, leaving just four deputies to help cover the county that spans more than 250 square miles in far southern Illinois.
updated 9/27/2009 3:56:58 PM ET 2009-09-27T19:56:58

As sheriff in one of the state's poorest counties, David Barkett often has his hands full keeping drug and property crimes in check. But now things have gone from bad to worse to desperate in Alexander County, where 27 percent of residents live in poverty and the general fund has dwindled to $30,000.

Barkett this month laid off three-fourths of his staff, leaving just four deputies to help cover the county that spans more than 250 square miles in far southern Illinois. Just days later, he surrendered five patrol cars to the local bank for nonpayment, leaving his department just one county-owned vehicle.

And by midweek, Barkett's prisoners may be turned away from the regional jail because the county hasn't kept up paying for the upkeep of its inmates there.

"We will be a lawless society," worries Angela Greenwell, a county board member, fearing the latest trouble "basically has neutered the sheriff's department."

‘Beggars can't be choosers’
Barkett says losing the cars and deputies "hogties us," but he's doing what he can to keep residents safe.

Troopers from an Illinois State Police post about 20 miles away are helping to patrol rural stretches in the county. And last week, Barkett drove to Springfield to talk to state and federal officials about surplus vehicles; by day's end he was driving back to Cairo in a 2004 Ford SUV, a government hand-me-down with 73,000 miles on the odometer.

"Right now, beggars can't be choosy," he said. Besides, the SUV is "like brand new" compared to his department's county-owned car that's rolled up close to 200,000 miles. And with more donated vehicles perhaps headed his way, Barkett is taking baby steps to fill the void.

"I firmly believe that the good will prevail, the good Lord willing," he said. "I'm not a quitter, and I wasn't elected to let these people down. And I have no intention to do that."

But Barkett's headaches are just the latest in Alexander County, which Greenwell said has "been in a downward spiral" for decades.

The decay is perhaps most glaring in the county seat of Cairo, a once-bustling port city at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The outpost served as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters in the Civil War's infancy, then steamboats helped make it a vital transportation nexus. By the 1920s, when 15,200 people called Cairo home, the city was a hub of commerce, thanks to rails and rivers, before its importance waned as the nation turned to interstate highways and air travel.

City never really recovered
Matters worsened when a race riot erupted in 1967, fueling the exodus of employers and residents. The city has never really recovered from it.

The riverfront now resembles an Old West ghost town, its facades crumbling and windows boarded up. Some of the buildings are little more than heaps of bricks. Other structures are overrun with weeds. Some of the hulking buildings, many dating to the 19th century, offer ample cover for drug dealers and users.

And there seems to be no relief in sight.

Since 2000, Alexander County's population has slumped about 15 percent, to an estimated 8,200 last year.

The median home household income as of 2007 was $28,443 — nearly half the statewide level — while roughly 27 percent of county residents were living below the poverty line, more than twice the 11.9 percent statewide. In August, the unemployment rate was 11.9 percent.

Greenwell said that has resulted in a dwindling tax base made worse because the county probably has more public housing than privately owned. Census records show there was one building permit issued by the county last year.

"How can a community survive with that imbalance?" she said.

The financial woes have touched more than the sheriff's department.

Residents don't seem surprised
The clerk's office has a new computer to store all of the county's registered voters and ballot results, but it sits unusable because the county has run up a $35,000 tab with the provider of the system and software, Clerk Nancy Kline said.

"It's not anybody's fault. Nobody's purposely holding us up in getting this fixed," she said, adding that she hopes the problem can be remedied in time for the February primary election. "I've been pushing this for too long. But it'll be fixed."

Residents don't seem surprised by the county's troubles.

"We don't have any industry, no jobs," 71-year-old Phyllis Pecord said while working at a bookkeeping and tax-preparation business near Olive Branch, believing the county's poverty has left many unwilling to pay their taxes on time, much less at all.

Up Route 3, at his service station and repair shop, Bobby Jones says the county loses sales tax revenue to Missouri and Kentucky, just across the rivers from Alexander County.

Jones once let the sheriff's department run a tab for gas at his shop but cut it off after the bill reached $1,000 and there was no evidence it'd be paid. He assumes he'll get compensated, but it's any guess when.

"You try to help out, but I just can't go farther than that," he said, then paused. "It's really quite sad."

‘It's like a boil. It's popping’
Greenwell said the county — whose general fund has just $30,000 — was in a real fix until a judge transferred $50,000 from the court system into the county's general fund, allowing the county to pay $10,000 owed to four of the laid-off deputies.

Ostensibly, Greenwell said, the remaining money could go toward the county's $86,000 tab for its prisoners at the regional jail that serves three counties. If the county doesn't come up with the remaining $41,000 for the jail bill by Thursday, Barkett can't send any more prisoners there.

After that, she's not sure what the county will do.

"It's like a boil. It's popping," she said. "It's just going to be one thing after another."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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