It is not a great stretch of imagination to understand we humans face a worldwide crisis that threatens all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated almost all aspects of our lives for the past six months and that is unlikely to change very soon regardless of who is doing the talking. We have witnessed peaceful protests, partisan quarreling and unwavering stances on some of the simplest of things such as wearing a mask in public places. With all of the serious business going on in the world, Joliet managed to make headlines by paying four city employees overtime wages on a holiday for providing a porta-potty for nurses on strike at Amita St. Joe’s hospital. Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk ordered up the portable facility by directly calling the public works department to set-up the city-owned property. The part-time interim City Manager Steve Jones, who has resigned but not gone, was not happy over the incident and let it be known Mayor O’Dekirk has no authority to do that.
Life continues from day to day no matter what struggles or victories are presented to our specific circumstances. The past few months have tested most of us in one way or another. Many (too many) have lost their lives from the COVID-19 pandemic and other causes that seem avoidable and unnecessary. Many more have lost jobs and income necessary to maintain our daily lives. All of the life issues that we faced prior to the current circumstances still exist, we are just paying less attention to them. Obviously, I don’t have any answers for the current state of affairs that have not already been articulated. I am prompted to write my column this week but Instead of weighing in on some of the serious issues of the day, here are a few tidbits of news that probably don’t have a big impact on most of us.
The Fourth of July is this weekend. It will be a three-day holiday that will probably be somewhat calmer than past years due to COVID-19. Most States, including Illinois, will be more open for celebration than has been possible the last three months. While many restrictions on businesses have been lifted, social distancing and wearing a mask covering are still in place and recommended. The Fourth of July is the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The day celebrated as Independence Day is fixed on the Fourth of July, but like many historical events it’s an arbitrary date chosen to accommodate the celebration of our independence from Great Britain. John Adams, the second U.S. president, refused to acknowledge the Fourth of July as Independence Day. He recognized July 2, as the date of the official birthday of the new nation. He did, however, host the first Fourth of July party held at the White House in 1801. Perhaps he’s the original “flip-flopper.”
The role of leadership in Joliet seems to be very muddled in the minds of many of its citizens. It is no wonder. The City Manager is leased from a third party, the Mayor wants to play policeman and the city council is split on most items that are not routine. Coverage of the incident has been widespread in the local media, including The Times Weekly. There has even been mention of the incident in other media locations around the nation. In light of Mayor Bob O’Dekirk’s altercation last week with two protesters, perhaps it is time for those elected and appointed officials to review their roles.
Gaming revenue losses are one of the many casualties of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Illinois Gaming Board reports, in 2019 Illinois generated more than $821 million in revenue from casinos and video gaming. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has closed casinos and video gaming to the public since March 16 due to the stay-at-home order. So far, Illinois gaming losses exceed $150 million year to date. Joliet has lost approximately $2.6 million of gaming revenue thus far. The loss of the gaming revenue has brought about an interesting response from the Illinois legislature. Last year’s state budget included a casino for the City of Chicago, along with sports wagering in Illinois but that has yet to come to fruition. Rather than reduce some corresponding expenditures, both the House and the Senate passed a casino measure that would give a larger share of gaming revenue to a Chicago casino, when and if it’s built, rather than share additional revenues with the nine other communities with casinos. There are 10 casinos, and Joliet has two.
The pandemic caused by COVID-19 continues to alter the way we conduct our lives. The first three-day holiday since the shelter-in-place began back in March will be the Memorial Day weekend that starts on Saturday the 23rd and ends with Monday the 25th. Connecting dates to the days of the week is important because it’s getting harder to separate when the weekend starts and the work-week begins, or is it the other way around?
It was just about eight weeks ago that voters in 14 States voted in Primary Elections to select Republican and Democratic candidates for National, State and County offices that will be voted for on November 3, 2020. Just two weeks later, the Illinois primary was held. That was March 17. Since then, COVID-19 has dominated just about every aspect of our lives. The one exception in the Joliet area has been the Northpoint issue and even that has quieted down in the last two weeks. This next week, the City Council meets on Tuesday and no doubt discussion on how Joliet will confront the impending financial crisis facing city government operations will be on the agenda. City revenues have been greatly impacted in at least two of the city’s major revenue sources: gaming and sales taxes. Assuming a modest decrease in sales taxes and the complete loss of gaming revenue in the last six to eight weeks losses could exceed as much as $5 million year to date. There are few possibilities that revenue can be recovered. That only leaves the option of what expenses can be cut.
The people of Joliet have heard from the City’s financial professionals that currently run our city and the news is bleak. Joliet could run out of money to pay all of its obligations by October. That includes the city employees’ payroll. The City Council heard from non-resident, contract Interim City Manager type, Steve Jones and full-time city employee, Finance Department Director, Jim Ghedotte, that the crisis is a result of the pandemic currently being experienced. Nonsense! More explanation than that is necessary. The comments made by Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk that many municipalities in Illinois and around the country are in a financial bind, while true, do not illuminate the whole picture. The City’s financial dilemma dates back some 28 years ago when Joliet became the recipient of casino revenue. In 1992, Joliet was still suffering from what was called the rust-belt syndrome. Midwest manufacturing in Joliet was declining. The need for domestic raw steel production was being replaced by foreign markets. To help offset the loss of jobs and revenue, the State of Illinois made casino gambling on riverboats legal and the beneficiaries of the gaming tax revenue that was imposed, besides the State, would be the rust-belt river towns like Joliet, Aurora, Peoria and East St. Louis among others. The idea was to provide those cities most affected by the loss of industry a source of revenue for capital improvements like infrastructure, roads and bridges. All of the communities with gaming revenue did earmark the money for major capital improvement projects with one exception—Joliet.
It’s been just a little over two weeks since the coronavirus pandemic was declared a national emergency by President Trump and the Illinois Primary squeaked by with a dismal voter turnout for a Presidential Primary. Turn-out this year was just over 25 percent. The last Presidential Primary in 2016 netted slightly less than a 45 percent turnout. The official results of the 2020 primary will be posted on April 7. Provisional and mail-in ballots were added as of March 31. There are no changes in the outcome of any race. There have been no Presidential Primaries held in the U.S. since March 17.
The news is almost completely dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are very few positives that can be highlighted regarding the crisis, but perhaps those objecting to development of the Northpoint intermodal project can take some solace from Mondays announcement. The public hearing on the pre-annexation of the 1260-acre project has been postponed until further notice. Seems the best efforts of many people to delay the vote had unanticipated outside help. This project has been on a fast track for, what appears to be, no visible reason. Why the rush? That’s the question. According to the pre-annexation agreement, several things must be accomplished before any dirt is turned over. A bridge over the Des Plaines River must be built. Even though it has been approved and preliminary plans to proceed with construction have been made, it’s possibly two or more years away from completion. The project’s main concept is that of a closed loop facility with only two places to enter and exit. The promised bridge is one of them.