Joliet’s pursuit of a new water source has become a complicated saga of miscommunication and questionable cost comparison information. Last week the DuPage Water Commission sent a letter to Mayor Bob O’Dekirk questioning how cost estimates to become a DWC customer were derived. The DWC did not submit or review any of the cost estimates attributed to DWC. According to another source another candidate that could provide a river water source, Aqua Illinois, also did not submit costs. What’s going on? Good question, the trite response goes! The City’s response was sent to DuPage Water Commission on Tuesday in an effort to explain how the cost figures were computed. The reply was provided by Allison Swisher, Public Utilities Director for Joliet. In the letter Swisher suggests they read the Phase II Study Report and after reviewing the full report “provide us with any specific issues that you feel may need to be addressed.”
The City of Joliet received a letter on Monday, November 25, from the DuPage Water Commission (DWC) contesting inclusion of cost estimate comparisons of water source alternatives. The letter was addressed to Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk and copied to the Joliet City Council, the Joliet Environmental Commission and Allison Swisher, Public Utilities Director. The letter acknowledges making a presentation made in March that established the reasons why Joliet should consider using DWC for their water source. The presentation did not include any cost estimates. Since then, the DWC has been invited to submit a formal Request For Proposal (RFI), attend a workshop meeting in Joliet and received an email from Joliet that included cost estimates the DWC deemed inaccurate. The DWC did not respond to any of the requests nor prepare or present anything, according to the letter.
Approximately 18 Months have elapsed since the City of Joliet engaged in a study to determine a sustainable, high quality and cost-effective water supply for the City. The Environmental and Refuse Commission has been charged with the task. There are eight members of the Commission and I am one of them. I have learned a substantial amount of information about water quality and sustainability, but I am not an expert on the subject. All members of the Commission are unpaid volunteers. The expertise supplied to the Commission came from Joliet’s Utility Department and a consultant organization with proficiency in this type of study. The Commission’s conclusions are contained in two reports. Phase I is a 273-page Alternative Water Source Study and Phase II is a 622-page Final Report. The Commission will vote on its choice at a meeting on December 10 in the City Council chambers. The Joliet City Council will decide on the new source of water based on the Commission’s conclusions at a City Council meeting in January. From that point, the City will embark on an infrastructure plan that will take approximately 10 Years before a turn of the faucet will bring a new water source to Joliet. At least that’s the plan.
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.