Ethics in city government. Apparently, it’s a crisis in Joliet that none of the high price talent employed at City Hall can resolve without assistance from a third-party expert. Part-time Interim City Manager Steve Jones proposed a contract this week to retain the services of law firm Ancil Glick in order to “avoid the perception of any type of impropriety.” You’re kidding, right? The City of Joliet has a whole legal department, a temporary city manager, department heads and a city council that costs a large portion of the city budget and we have to hire outside help to settle disputes that are, by and large, petty and unnecessary? Again, really? You’re kidding!
Early Fall is the time of the year when all of the major professional sports are being played simultaneously. Professional and college football dominate the airways, but basketball, hockey, and soccer are also being played and of course baseball is winding up their season. It’s questionable if baseball is still America’s pastime, but the World Series begins this week and that usually generates some interest even if the hometown team (Chicago) isn’t in it this year. A few weeks back our Joliet hometown baseball organization made its annual report to the city, and touted a successful season. Not on the baseball field mind you, but attendance was up and, apparently, they had many more events, besides baseball, that took place in the stadium than in previous years. That’s because the owners of the baseball stadium, Joliet taxpayers, spent a few million dollars in upgrades to the stadium in order to provide a better experience and allow more diversified events.
The City of Joliet fiscal year runs from January 1 to December 31. Every year the city manager submits a recommended budget to the City Council for approval. Of course, each department is expected to live within that budget barring any unforeseen events. The budget is usually adopted sometime in December. Usually by October the budget is coming together for presentation to the City Council in November. It’s probably too early to speculate on any increase in property taxes, but we do know that the Will County Supervisor of Assessments sent out a notice in August regarding the 2019 Quadrennial Assessment for property tax. Most properties show an increased assessment value. The City of Joliet will set the property tax rate accordingly. Even if the tax rate is lowered, it doesn’t mean property taxes will decrease. It usually doesn’t work that way. Property taxes account for about 20 percent of Joliet’s revenue.
The Joliet Environmental and Refuse Commission are charged with the advisory responsibility to study and investigate air and water pollution problems and possible solutions. In conjunction with investigations and studies, the Commission shall recommend to the City Council, ordinances to implement their recommendations. According to the City of Joliet website that’s what the Commission is accountable for. About 18 months ago the Commission took on the project of finding a new source of sustainable drinking water. It’s been a slow, laborious task and the Commission’s close to making a recommendation. That will happen in November. The Commission will submit a report with recommendations for a new source of drinking water to the Joliet City Council for their consideration. Full disclosure here: I am a member of that Commission. After all the meetings and research are complete the Commission is supposed to have the answers for cost, quality and sustainability. The seriousness of the need for a sustainable source of drinking water cannot be overemphasized. The cost will most likely be staggering. There has been an obvious reluctance to discuss cost during monthly Commission meetings. There was even an instance where commissioners were asked not to question a potential water supplier about cost.
Transparency and communication are two elements most of us expect from our governments from the national level right on down to the local levels. That’s a big expectation. Oftentimes, it’s not government officials that transmit the transparency and communication. So, it was no big surprise last week that Crain’s Chicago Business issue dated September 2 revealed a private meeting regarding the possibility of Chicago selling Lake Michigan water to the City of Joliet. The only surprise was that the meeting was initiated by City of Chicago representatives after months of not showing up for requested appearances before the Joliet Environmental Commission’s monthly meetings. The Commission is progressing through Phase Two of a lengthy process to find a more sustainable source of drinking water. Phase One was completed and offered by the Committee in a January 8 report that was 247 pages long. This was presented to the public as justification of a previous year-long study that determined the most viable, sustainable sources for Joliet’s drinking water. The study concluded those sources were the Kankakee River, the Illinois River, and Lake Michigan. Surely you will want to peruse all 247 pages of the report. Like most government studies, it’s complicated, boring, and you must have a background in engineering to fully comprehend it. But I digress.
Unless you always pay attention to city government regularly you might find recent deliberations regarding Joliet’s City Manager position somewhat troubling. Watching the Joliet City Council debate the issue has been a real head spinner the last few months. According to all accounts, and the personal affirmations of several Council members, they are all on board for the betterment and advancement of the City of Joliet. Maybe, but there is one city issue they all seem to be struggling with. To wit, who will be the next City Manager? It all began quite innocently two years ago with the public announcement that then City Manager Jim Hock was going for retirement and the search was on for his replacement. City Attorney, Marty Shanahan, served as interim City Manager until a replacement was hired. The City Council employed a recruiting firm to locate the most qualified individual available. After a relatively short search, the council chose an individual with all the qualifications desired in a City Manager. His name was David Hales. Hales lasted less than a year and left a trail of woe and a hefty financial settlement as well. Shanahan again stepped in as the interim manager but this time the Mayor wanted to skip the recruiting process and hire him as permanent City Manager. A majority of the City Council objected, Shanahan was removed as interim manager again and Steve Jones, who was, according to his job description, the Assistant City Manager (don’t ask, it’s too confusing). He took over as Interim City Manager. He really didn’t want the job, so the Council members who didn’t want Shanahan decided to offer the interim job to former City Manager Jim Hock, who decided he didn’t want to be retired anymore. He wanted too much money, however, and the City Council decided not to hire him. The recruiting firm who brought Hales to Joliet was contacted about the dilemma facing the Council’s city manager issue and advised the Council to wait at least six months before searching for a new city manager. The recruiting firm offered a reduction in their fee if they were hired again for the search because Hales didn’t last a full year on the job. Probably part of their guarantee, I guess.
A few weeks back I questioned whether our Joliet government was a sugar-daddy based on the many requests it receives from organizations needing revenue beyond their means. One that was mentioned was the Joliet Public Library. The Library Board has developed a plan for the renovation of the downtown facility. It’s called Project Burnham. Preliminary plans will be presented to the Joliet City Council at the August 19 Pre-Council meeting of the City Council. Following the presentation will be the request for the additional $6.5 million necessary to complete the $10.5 million renovation. According to the library’s website, planning for the project began in 2015 when the board created a master plan for the renovation and made it a top priority. Since the Joliet Public Library is part of the City of Joliet government, the board has no authority to actually levy taxes for the project even though there is a separate levy on the property tax bill. The tax levy is primarily an accounting measure designed to keep the library from spending beyond the levy. Any additional dollars needed for expansion and renovations need the cooperation of the City Council, which has the final say on the levy. There apparently was planning for the renovation prior to 2008, but the recession put the idea on hold. At that time gaming revenue was still a factor in City finances but that has since changed. When Megan Millen, current Library Director, began championing the idea it was seen as part of a “grand renaissance” of the downtown. The new JJC campus building was open and the Will County courthouse project was underway to reality. Beyond that, the revitalization of Joliet’s downtown is largely dependent on private sector development dollars with the help of expanded Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts.
It’s not always easy to know the facts. That’s a phrase we all hear frequently. The initial reaction to that expression is often times one of skepticism because the facts are thought to be based on proven data. The facts may depend on how they relate to the circumstances being presented. For instance, over the last couple of weeks I read two articles in two different publications about how the new minimum wage laws implemented in some states will affect employers. One article said an increased minimum wage will cause employers to reduce their work force due to the increased cost of wages. The other article said many employers are offering wages above the minimum requirement due to the labor shortage. Both articles were backed up with factual data that proved each article’s premise. It reminded me of the glass half full versus the glass half empty comparison. More to the point might be that one’s perception of the facts depend on which end of the elephant a blindfolded person is examining. (Or which end of the donkey, depending on your political persuasion).
Did you ever have a rich uncle? You know, one that you always depended on to give the best gifts for birthdays and holidays? The relative you always thought you could depend on if you were in a financial bind? Or did you have a good-time Charlies in the family that were always spreading money around so you would like them? Most of the time, you enjoy the relationship and don’t take advantage of the connection. But there is always the one that wants to take advantage of the good fortune available. They hang around and look for the opportunity to comfortably benefit rather than seek their own fortune. There is some measure that casts the City of Joliet in the role of that rich uncle. Why, you say? The most recent example would be the request from the Joliet Public Library Director Megan Millen. The request is for remodeling the downtown library which is located on Ottawa Street. It also has a closed entrance on Chicago Street. The building was first constructed in 1903 and was expanded to its current size in 1989. The library downtown could use a facelift, no doubt. It was commented at last week’s City Council Finance Committee meeting that as the third largest city in Illinois Joliet should have a modern library. Joliet does have a modern library branch and it’s less than 20 years old. The library branch is on Joliet’s far west side and it was built with a grant of $5 million from the City. By the way, the Joliet Library District is a separate taxing entity with its own levy. They now want an additional $6.5 million from Joliet to renovate the downtown library. The former grant was possible in 2002 because the city was the beneficiary of gaming revenue that exceeded $30 million a year. At that time the City was on a spending binge that lasted about 15 years. There have been others who have sought the generosity of the Joliet municipal government. Recently, the nonprofit Joliet Area Historical Museum sought additional revenue and other City support for their prison tourist attraction venture. It was suggested that without the City’s support, the museum would have a difficult time meeting its obligations.
It has been entertaining to observe the City Council’s bickering over what should be a transparent and open resolution to who will be Joliet’s next City Manager. Obviously, regardless of all the pontificating about who would be the most qualified person for the job, what it really comes down to is who projects the most power on the City Council. The council has moved from objective disagreement of issues to “it’s my way or the highway.” It makes for great theater but it doesn’t get the city business done. For all the bluster being displayed on this important issue, I find it hard to believe that what should be a simple matter of transparency regarding the lease contract with the Slammers baseball organization, the City Council looks helpless. Not a good look for any of the Council “players.” This Times Weekly column has provided many articles over the years about Joliet’s baseball stadium so it’s not like I am unfamiliar with what has happened over the past many years with Joliet’s baseball stadium. It was about 10 years ago this column publicly exposed the fact that the then stadium occupants, the Joliet Jackhammers, hadn’t paid rent for over a year. During the Jackhammers tenure there was the revelation that the stadium water pipes were exposed to the cold, harsh winters in the Midwest and they burst. The extensive damage to the property, along with other repairs, was paid for by the City because we owned it. After the Jackhammers went bust, the new tenants wanted a new scoreboard replacement which the City paid for because “we owned it.” A few years later the grass field was replaced with $1.2 million worth of artificial turf so the baseball organization could use the stadium for more events. The City paid for it because “we owned it.” None of the revenue from the increased use went to the City of Joliet. That revenue accrued to the Slammers organization. When the Silver Cross Hospital naming rights contract expired a couple of years ago the City renamed the stadium Route 66 Field and paid for the new sign that went up replacing the old one. You guessed it: The City paid for it because “we owned it.”