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Wayne's Words: Delay, delay ... but the bill's still going to come due

Wayne Horne | 9/17/2015, 9:02 a.m.
The Joliet City Council has dragged its feet for years and squandered millions of dollars but now cannot avoid an ...
The Joliet City Council has dragged its feet for years and squandered millions of dollars but now cannot avoid an impending deadline to fix its combined sewer-water overflow problems.

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Wayne Horne

Watching the Joliet City Council at Monday’s meeting drone on about the correct percentage of a pending sewer and water rate increase brought back several memories I’d like to share.

I understand Councilman Larry Hug’s reluctance to stroll down memory lane with city water boss Jim Eggen, but remembering the past can sometimes predict the future.

I knew I couldn’t avert it when the longest-serving council member, Mike Turk, brought up past gaming revenue expenditures. He stated that many things purchased with the money were for “quality of life” purposes.

Perhaps, but the core fiscal responsibility that is expected of any municipality is that of police and fire protection as well as infrastructure maintenance and repair. In Joliet, that includes water and sewer infrastructure for city residents.

The debate on what the rate increase should be is, again, late to the dance. What happened in the past when rates were delayed and not structured to cover future costs is the reason why the city of Joliet is facing a $71 million expense instead of a $40 or $50 million cost for the EPA mandated storm water-sewer overflow project.

I remember well (it’s in the city council minutes) when a then city council member asked then City Manager Tom Thanas what grants were available for the EPA mandates imposed on Joliet. The councilman did not believe unfunded mandates were fair. Welcome to the real world. It was our problem to repair and our expense to fund.

That was 10 years ago and the city was flush with revenue from developments, gaming revenue and money in the bank. The project was already 20 years late at the time.

Over the last 23 years, the city of Joliet's share of gaming revenue amounts to more than $591 million. How did they spend it? Since 2010 it has been almost exclusively used for everyday overhead expenses of the city. This has kept taxes artificially low when the demand for services dictated increased revenue for police and fire protection. Personnel costs increased substantially but the requisite revenues did not keep up.

Much of the gaming revenue that could have been use for capital projects was used for operational expenses and non-core municipal responsibilities, such as school donations and social service grants.

It’s the same story for the water and sewer rate increases. Instead of increasing rates incrementally over time, a large increase was necessary a few years ago and again the need for improvements in the system and the mandated EPA requirements were put off until a future date.

Well, the date has arrived and some on the council are still dragging their feet. A low-cost source of borrowing from the state will expire by July 2016. After that, it will cost even more than it does today.

Another item debated this week was the possible transfer of Billie Limacher Bicentennial Park from the city of Joliet to the Joliet Township. This debate makes even less sense than the proposed water rate increase.