17 August, 2011

Complete Text of an Expurgated Article Published This Week


Water Ordinance Amendment Discussed, Old Issues Surface

By Mick Parsons for The Prairie Advocate News

Mount Carroll – Changes to the city's Water Ordinance, as proposed by Tom Charles (Ward 3) were discussed at length, and the input of landlords and property owners being taken into consideration as the council works on the final draft. In spite of the generally favorable response to most of the changes to the amendment draft, however, some old issues surfaced delineating clearly the factions and tensions within the city council that many voters hoped to get rid of in the last election. And in spite of the fact that half the council being in their first term, the same old divisions that gave a sense of gridlock to the last council still pervaded the conversation.

Water On the Brain

The big discussion for the night was draft of amendments to the city's water ordinance. Even though the new ordinance calls for an additional $100 deposit for new water accounts – with only landlords and residential owners being able to get the deposit back after 12 months of timely payments – and it also provides a time line between the date the payment is due and when service is cut off for nonpayment... and essentially removes any discretionary ability on the part of City Clerk Julie Cuckler, who has been critisized by current aldermen Sisler and Bork and former alderman Nina Cooper for her more humanitarian and one on one approach in dealing with delinquent payments... the major issue among the more vocal residents present at the meeting still boiled down to whether or not a new water ordinance would do any good.

Before going over the draft, Alderman Charles (Ward 3) tried to organize the conversation into two parts. He intended to first discuss the water ordinance “going forward” and wanted to keep the more contentious arguments related to delinquent water bills as a separate issue. He was also careful to point out that the purpose of discussing the ordinance draft was so that area landlords and residential owners could give their input, ask questions, and voice concerns.

One local landlord, Leo Haag, insisted that the only problem with the current water ordinance was enforcement – or the lack of it. “Most of the mistakes with delinquent water bills have been made in the building.”

Trying to keep the conversation on track – or perhaps hoping that his elegant solution would calm the concerns of those present – Alderman Charles went on to read more of the proposed changes. If the proposed changes pass, the city will not turn off the water at any landlord's property without a notarized letter stating that the property is vacant... this is in response to a previous situation in which a landlord had a tenants water turned off while they were still living there. Also, landlords will be responsible for 2 months worth of delinquent water bills, if there are any, should a tenant move and leave a delinquent bill; that two months will be offset by the $100 deposit, however. If a landlord includes the water in the cost of the rent and gets behind on the bill, the city will leave the water on until the property is vacant.

The new ordinance would also add a $50 administrative fee for lien preparation that will be passed on to the landlord, along with the court establish legal fees.

Charles passed out copies of letters to delinquent water bill customers – one to property owners, and one to tenants. The language of both letters was pretty much the same, except that landlords and residential property owners would have to pay 10% interest on the past due amount and tenants would only have to pay 5%. This was met with some grumbles of displeasure from the landlords in the audience, but Charles said that since landlords are in business to make money, it's important that the city hit them where it will most affect them.

Alderman Bob Sisler (Ward 2) took issue with the “legally possible” clause. In other words, the state statute does limit the city in some respects. For one, no public utility can be shut off between December 1st and March 1st, and for another, it's illegal for any utility to be shut off when it will exacerbate a medical problem and place the resident at risk... and if the city did so, it would be open to legal action. City Attorney Ron Coplan pointed out, however, that there's no state law restricting evictions for non-payment of rent.

Alderman Doug Bergren (Ward 3) then asked Coplan whether or not it's true that state law makes landlords responsible for the unpaid water bills of their tenants, and Coplan conceded that Bergren was correct.

And while there weren't that many vocal objections to the the proposed Water Ordinance Changes, there were when it came time to discuss how the city will deal with delinquent water bills. After Andy Shaw asked what happened to large water bills left behind by former tenants who move out of the area, Charles reminded the audience that the city has found a collection agency, Tri-State Adjustments, to track those people down and attempt to collect the debt.

The biggest issue that those present – clearly landlords – had was that in the end, they could still be held responsible for the unpaid water bills of their tenants. As Bergren, Charles, and City Attorney Ron Coplan pointed out, however, that's the state law.

Mr. Haag also pointed out that no other utility operates the way Mount Carroll operates it's water utility. He insisted that neither JoCarroll nor Nicor would allow an account to get as behind as some of the delinquent accounts on the city's past due list.

Jan Handel, echoing Haag's complaint, asked “Why do the bills get so high?” She later added that there was already an ordinance on the books that wasn't enforced. She was echoing a criticism going back to the previous council, and to previous council meetings during which – like this one – the city clerk was openly critisized in spite of the fact that she, like the mayor, were re-elected. Alderman Sisler has made much of his stance in favor of going by the letter of the law, and others, like Alderman Bork and former Alderman Nina Cooper, haven't been shy of their public critiques of either the Clerk or the mayor. And while there was a point when it seemed like the tension on city council was going to dissipate so that while disagreements would remain that business could at least get done, it seems like the same old tensions and same old factions are again having sway.

And in this case, even though the proposed ordinance would do precisely what some critics of the city, the clerk, and the mayor have wanted – namely, remove the clerk's discretionary powers when it comes to dealing with past due water bills – there were still those who took the opportunity of a public forum to voice their dissatisfaction with what they see as a history of mismanagement. To hear the group present at last week's council meeting, one would think the entire town was in an uproar.

Of course, the other significant group of people who will be impacted by the new water ordinance – the tenants – was not present at the meeting; though to be fair, unlike the landlords they weren't expressly invited to what is an open public meeting. That they didn't come out themselves suggests that they've been busy on the phone with their aldermen, or there's an apathy to what goes on, or they think their thoughts don't matter.

One resident did speak up, however. Terri Evansberger pointed out that there are “extenuating circumstances” that might cause people to get behind on their water bill, and that those things should be taken into consideration. Alderman Charles pointed out that the new Health and Welfare Fund – which was approved by ordinance that same night – would give people options to pursue in trying to get their water bill paid.

Alderman Rose raised the point of seasonal restrictions again and Alderman Charles said, “We won't break the law.”

Alderman Sisler, wanting to get in one more dig before the conversation moved on said, “Not anymore.”

To TIF or Not to TIF

Another issue that continues to draw attention to the divisions on the board is the Mount Carroll TIF District and how TIF funds actually work. The TIF fund has been the focus of ire, complaints, and confusions among some present and past members of the city council; and even though one alderman, Doug Bergren, deals with TIF Funds in his day job and in spite of the exhaustive efforts of supporters as well as the media to explain how and why TIF works, when the issue came up last week the same old confusions bubbled to the surface.

The owners of Mount Carroll Bowling wrote a letter to the city council asking it to take action regarding their TIF request. According to the TIF agreement that Mount Carroll Bowl has with the city, it can receive 90% of it's TIF increment, and the owners are hoping they can use the TIF funds – which are tied to the Estimated Assessed Value (EAV) of the property – to make up some of the $78,000 they've invested since buying it in 2009.

The problem is that when the owners and the city went back to look at the business's 2007 EAV, it was inflated well beyond what the owners think the property was actually worth. And while that can be looked into, the end result is that because of the higher assessed value in 2007, Mount Carroll Bowl may not be able to draw from the TIF Fund because they haven't paid in.

To keep it simple – mostly because is simple – supporters of TIF Funds claim they are a way for localities to use local money for economic development. In the case of Mount Carroll's TIF District, which also includes Pearl City Bank, Schneider House Furniture, and Main Street Commons, the TIF Fund is fed by the difference between the 2007 EAV and what the business actually pays in property taxes. For example, If a business in the TIF District paid $3000 in property taxes in 2007, but they paid $4000 in 2011, that extra $1000 would go into TIF. Conversely, if they paid $3000 in property taxes in 2007 and $2500 in 2011, then nothing would go into the TIF.

Generally, a business only qualifies for TIF Funds – based on an agreement with the city requiring passage by the city council – if they pay in. The owners of Mount Carroll Bowl claim the 2007 EAV was so high and that it's dropped so much since then that there's no way they will ever get TIF money.

Mayor Carl Bates suggested two options:
  1. They don't get any money, as per the agreement, since nothing has been paid in, or
  2. The bowling alley and the city agree on an amount – a smaller amount than what they're asking. – and they get that.
The mayor was clearly pushing for the second option, saying he wanted to encourage a business that has helped bring people into downtown. “All I can do is suggest,” he said. “I feel we should participate at some level. That's my opinion.”

Alderman Bergen suggests a specific number: $15,000 – which could help Mount Carroll Bowl install much needed air conditioning on the lanes. The mayor said that is a separate thing and not really covered by the TIF contract.

The only concern that Alderman Mike Risko (Ward 1) raised was one of favoritism. “I don't want to play favorites,” he said.

As of the council meeting last week, the TIF Fund has a balance of $31,021.20. According to the agreement between the TIF District and the City of Mount Carroll, once disbursements are made to those businesses which get them – Pearl City Bank for one – the balance of the TIF FUND will then be transferred to the Water Fund to pay on the Debt Service.

Bergren, who was clearly displeased with the notion fo draining the TIF, said “If we keep a low number in TIF, we'll never be able to do anything.”

There was some talk that the TIF agreement needs to be reviewed in light of the issue with Mount Carroll Bowl. According to the mayor, it's an issue they are likely to come up against again in the future with other TIF businesses. But some alderman – Sisler and Risko – claimed to not understand how TIF works. Sisler claimed that it might make sense to “someone that's smart.” Neither Risko nor Sisler were on the council when the TIF district was formed, but the issue has been discussed so much that does beg the question as to whether it's a matter of being smart enough or a matter of being politically cautious enough and tip toeing around a topic that has been a contentious point among members of the current and past councils. In other words, if all else fails, play dumb.

Who's The Boss?

Some of the current tensions among members of the city council showed while Alderman Sisler reported some of the complaints and comments he'd gotten from some of his constituents. Sisler said he was fielding calls from residents in Ward 2 about pot holes on Washington Street between Clay and Main; that people in a town this size call their elected officials, many of whom are also neighbors and friends, isn't really all that surprising. But apparently, in spite of all the years of leadership experience boasted to by many of the aldermen, and in spite of all the focus lately on following proper procedure in wake of JoCarroll's Public Relations campaign of tutoring new alderman in Parliamentary Procedure, there's still apparently some stark philosophical disagreements on the role of alderman in a town the size of Mount Carroll.

“I don't understand the chain of command,” Risko complained. After essentially accusing his fellow alderman of nitpicking and micro-managing, Risko said the job of an alderman was to provide overall leadership and not to “get involved in minutiae.”

“You're way off,” Sisler said. And other members of the council, including Alderman Bergren, along with residents sitting in the audience, seemed to agree.

In other council news, Lou Schau of the CDC talked about the Historic Preservation Fund. It has $6,000 to hand out this year, and they have decided to lend $3,000 each to Deane King of Second Rose and to Mary Kernan of New Morning Glass. Since it's inception in 2006, $41,000 has passed through the fund and into improvements in the downtown district. Also mentioned that there are three more flower boxes downtown, all paid for by downtown business owners and that Bella's and Brick Street Coffee have extended hours. Alderman Doris Bork (Ward 2) asked whether all the loans from the Historic Preservation Fund have been repaid. Schau said that there hasn't been a problem or default yet. Risko praised the CDC for it's work and the way it's improving the downtown.

Alderman Sisler asked about the golf cart – which isn't running – and whether it is meant to run on the street. Charles pointed out that the golf cart is technically a city vehicle... which Sisler didn't think was an answer to his question. Generally, however, in order for a vehicle such as a golf cart to be street legal, it must have head and tail lights and be registered with the state and plated.

Len Anderson reported that the next Cruise Night is on 8/20. He also asked the council to consider another $800 donation for next year. This donation comes out of the band fund, and usually in 4 increments of $200. The council went ahead and voted to approve the donation.

Jeff Woodside from The Carroll County Chapter of Pheasants Forever was at the meeting to ask the city for it's annual $100 donation towards the Pheasants Academic Scholarship Program. It was motioned and passed after a short discussion. Risko did ask if the city donated to other organizations for similar reasons. The mayor answered no, but added that the city does donate to the After Prom and other worthwhile projects when there are available funds and when the council is approached.

Former Alderman Diane Lego was named to the Mount Carroll Planning Commission. Lego, who served on the council until she decided not to run last year, made quite an impression of her leaving when, at her last meeting as an alderman, she returned the $100 Christmas bonus check she received from the city because she was an alderman. Prior to Lego being voted onto the the Planning Commission, Alderman Risko asked her why she wanted to serve when she made her displeasure with the current city administration so clear. She answered that she simply wanted to serve and that the only reason she returned the check in such a grand manner was because she didn't feel that aldermen should get a holiday bonus.

During the general audience portion, Andy Shaw said that his property in Mount Carroll has sewage back up problems every time it floods and that he hopes the city will look into the issue, since it's clear that last year's flood wasn't the last flood of any magnitude that the city would have to deal with.

Jean Schintzler commented that the city still hasn't done anything about her water problem, even though city workers have been up to her house and tested her water. She maintains that the water she put in her pool was “as brown as the Mississippi River” and that when it comes out of the tap it often smells like rotten eggs. Alderman Sisler couldn't resist the urge to ask if that meant the water was “pot-able.” Schintzler went to say that when she called the mayor at home – again – to complain about the problem that the mayor told her he'd just shut the water off.” Bates later said that he said it out of frustration and that of course that wasn't the solution to the problem. During the meeting Mayor Bates said that even though the city has tested her water that it will take another sample and send it off to a lab in Sterling, which will test for more than chlorine and lead.

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