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.”
The City of Joliet has a long political history, dating back to 1852 when C. C. Van Horn served two years as Joliet’s first mayor. Since 1852 Joliet has had 38 mayors. Most of them served only one two-year term. A few served two-year terms two or three times, usually not consecutively. The length of the mayoral term changed to four years in 1915. There have been no female mayors of Joliet. Over the last 32 years, since 1987, there have been only four mayors. Current mayor, Bob O’Dekirk, is beginning his second term. By the end of his second term, Joliet will have had 36 years with only four mayors. Conversely, Joliet will be deciding on its fourth City Manager, counting interims, in just six years. Remember, we’re told, Joliet has a City Manager form of government. That brings Joliet government to the political theater of the last few weeks. What is currently playing out has little to do with substance and everything to do with “Who’s in charge here?” First, the hiring of former City Manager David Hales was not particularly well vetted prior to his start date in September 2018, and his tenure was short lived. The City Council unanimously approved his contract but he was gone in less than a year. Assistant City Manager Steve Jones was bypassed for the role of interim city manager and Marty Shanahan was appointed to the role for a second time, again by unanimous vote of the council. No real public attempt has been made to search for a replacement City Manager since Hales’ departure. For the present, Steve Jones is the interim city manager because that is part of his job description.
According to my research, Joliet adopted the current Council-Manager form of government about 60 years ago, in 1959. Under this form, the power of the council is purely legislative except that it is empowered to approve all expenses and liabilities to the municipality. That’s how the Illinois City/ Council Management Association defines the way Joliet municipal government functions. There was an attempt to change to a Strong Mayor form of governing Joliet in 1989 by then Mayor John Connor. The idea was rejected and hasn’t surfaced since. Or has it? Any change of government form in Joliet requires a voter referendum. Most municipalities in Illinois prefer and utilize the manager type of government but most perceive that it is the mayor who really runs the show. The way it is designed to work is well laid out. The City Manager takes direction from the legislation passed by the City Council and also administers the day to day operations of the city. The Mayor conducts City Council meetings from an agenda provided by the City Manager. That’s not exactly what’s happening today at City Hall.
Last week’s announcement regarding the naming rights for Joliet Route 66 Stadium may be somewhat premature. To be clear, there are no indications that such an agreement is not in the works, but the City of Joliet has not yet formally accepted a naming rights agreement to date. Plus, details of the agreement have not been released to the city council or the public. The agreement will have to be made public, after all, the City of Joliet owns Route 66 Stadium, not the Slammers baseball organization. The announcement of the agreement was released on May 20 and read like it was a done deal. According to Section 18 of the AGREEMENT FOR THE LEASE AND OPERATION OF THE JOLIET ROUTE 66 STADIUM “the City shall own the naming rights in and to the Stadium.” The Team (Slammers) acts as the City’s agent for selling or licensing the naming rights, according to the lease. Since the City Council has not yet met to approve the agreement it is not official. When City Manager Marty Shanahan was contacted last week regarding the announcement, he was unaware of any details of the agreement. The author of the Slammers press release, vice president of sales John Wilson, was also contacted for further information. He repeated the highlights of the release but would not give any information regarding the dollar amount of the agreement, citing it as “confidential information”. The same section of the lease cited above also specifies that all Naming Rights revenues after expenses are shared on a 50/50 basis with the Slammers organization.
Memorial Day is the federal holiday in the United States for remembering those people who died while serving in the country's armed forces. It was formerly known as Decoration Day and was traditionally observed on May 30. This year Memorial Day falls on Monday the 27th and is this next weekend. It was officially declared a national holiday in 1967. It is the traditional holiday that starts the summer. It is always a three-day weekend since the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect in 1968. The holiday moved from its traditional observance on May 30 to the last Monday in May. Families and friends gather for picnics and numerous outdoor events in observance of the holiday weekend. There are also the incessant holiday sales hyped by businesses big and small. But that’s not really what Memorial Day weekend is about. The official and traditional purpose of Memorial Day is a commemoration for soldiers who lost their lives while serving their country. The grateful phrase “Thanks for your service” should be reserved that weekend for those service members who paid the ultimate price-- they died fighting in battle for the United States of America.
Joliet has some unique challenges currently facing its future. The rapid residential growth of the early 2000’s has mostly halted and the concentration of the last several years is on economic growth. Seems Joliet can’t build enough warehouse space to accommodate the demand. At least that’s what it looks like. CenterPoint Intermodal Center and the areas surrounding it are the focal point for warehouse development. No one needs to coax the developers. They just keep on coming. That’s not the case for other areas of Joliet. With some exceptions, Joliet has a difficult time attracting private development without significant incentives to lure growth and expansion. In fact, some of our long-term businesses and employers seem to need incentives to stay here. Recently, two auto dealerships, already with a presence here, were each given in excess of $3 million worth of incentives for new dealerships they are building on Joliet’s far west side. Locating a business in Joliet must not be as desirable as we want to believe. The people at City Hall must believe it, though. Indeed, the following statement is printed at the bottom of most of the correspondence sent from city hall: “The City of Joliet is the third largest city in the State of Illinois and home to over 149,000 residents. Joliet sits 35 miles southwest of Chicago and is easily accessible by auto, train and bus; making it the perfect place to live, work and play.” We all want to believe Joliet is the place to work and play because we live here, but the evidence isn’t always working for us. To that end the City of Joliet is currently promoting three separate Tax Increment Financing Districts. For those of you who are less familiar with the TIF concept, it is a method to entice economic development to areas of the city that developers are presently not interested in developing. Tax incentives are made available to promote and incentivize properties that are “blighted or in disrepair.”
The Consolidated election results will not be official until April 23 when all of the ballots not counted on election night are audited and certified. The outcomes for Joliet’s City Council newly-elected members will be recognized at the May 6 council meeting. There will be some pomp and circumstance, no doubt, but there will only be one new addition to the City Council, Sharon “Sherri Reardon. She replaces John Gerl, who did not run for reelection. Mayor O’Dekirk ran unopposed and totaled just under 7500 votes on election night. That’s slightly more votes than four years ago when he captured 52 percent of the vote in a three-person race for mayor. Money spent for the 2019 O’Dekirk campaign was slightly higher than in 2015 ($48,728 v. $45,174) even though he was unopposed. Prior to the 2015 Joliet City Council election, while voting patterns were relatively similar, campaign fund expenditures were typically in the $20,000 or less range for mayoral candidates. Compare those results to the king of mayoral elections in Will County and the State of Illinois outside of Chicago, Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar. He barely won his last election in 2017 so he did not need to campaign for mayor this election cycle, but still spent almost $112,000 according to the most recently filed Illinois State Board of Election report. Claar spends about $50,000 or more each reporting quarter whether he has an election or not. He’s quite a campaigner for the six or seven thousand votes he gets every mayoral election.