The drinking water in parts of Hillsboro, Illinois, often stinks, is brown, rusty, and even musty, according to some of the people who live there.

So investigative reporter Maria Hallas sat down with the city's top elected official to ask some pointed questions.

When Mayor Bryan Sullivan was shown a photo of tap water and asked whether he would drink it, he admitted he wouldn't.

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A Hillsboro resident shared this photo of tap water with 5 On Your Side.
A Hillsboro resident shared this photo of tap water with 5 On Your Side.

The brown rusty water shown in the photos plagues homeowners in one of the oldest areas of the city near Big Four Avenue. Some of Sullivan's constituents told 5 On Your Side they’ve been living with the problem for years.

“It looks like sewer water,” said resident Linda Collins. “It is brown, it's ugly, it doesn't smell very good, and it tastes really bad.”

But Sullivan claims he didn’t know it was that bad.

"We've never heard this complaint until now," he said.

Though he does admit the water is occasionally cloudy or discolored.

“It's been very occasionally; it's not every day and I have had one complaint and it's the person who called you. The rest of the people have never complained to me," said the mayor.

But some residents say that response is bunk.

“With all due respect to the mayor, he and I talked about it before he was elected,” said resident Brad Collins. “I like the mayor, I think a lot of him, [but] that's wrong.”

And neighbor Allen Marfell says he gave the city's water department a letter, complaining of the “dark color” and “odor” of the water over four years ago.

"We are doing everything we can to fix this," promised the mayor. "It is just a matter of money."

And in the meantime, the mayor says the water is technically “safe” to drink.

Hillsboro, Ill. mayor Bryan Sullivan
Hillsboro, Ill. mayor Bryan Sullivan

“We've never had a test that comes back that says that there's a health risk at that location,” Sullivan said.

But in the end, that’s little comfort for some Hillsboro residents.

“They say it's perfectly safe, but it can't be safe,” Collins said. “Anything that looks that bad, tastes that bad, smells that bad cannot be safe.”

So what’s next? Well Mayor Sullivan told 5 On Your Side he has only been in office about two years. But he says that to replace the water mains will cost big bucks, around $600,000. And he says the only way to do it now is to raise Hillsboro’s water rates by 30 percent or 50 percent.

His preferred solution? He says the city can fund the project as soon as it issues a bond, in about two or three years.

But two or three years, some say, is a heck of a long time to wait.