DeKalb Taxpayers: Ready to Pony Up for a New Convention Center?

In July 2013, the city council of DeKalb approved the DeKalb City Center plan, an update of the 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan.

One of the key components of the plan is:

Leverage TIF to study the feasibility of and potentially promote the development of additional City Center traffic generators, such as a hotel/conference center, children’s museum, bowling alley, movie theater, or additional dining and entertainment options[.]

Except that by the time the plan was approved, DeKalb had already begun leveraging TIF to study the feasibility of a downtown hotel and convention center.

And had already begun negotiating with a developer.

And was already talking about helping to close a “feasibility gap” with public funds.

Why haven’t you heard about this? It’s because of the city manager’s spending authority. The city manager can authorize up to $20,000 in spending without going to the city council for approval. In the case of the hotel/convention center, the first study — dated January 2013 — cost $12,000. A supplement was completed this year for $7,500.

How convenient.

You can look at some of the documents, obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, at the City Barbs Blog Facebook Group.

So DeKalb Has a Streets Problem — Is TIF or a Sales Tax Hike the Answer?

This week’s number: $33 million

The city’s streets could need $33 million in repairs over the next five years, but a key funding source for the work will dry up by the end of the decade.

That has city leaders considering options including increasing the sales tax to generate more revenue.

Of the $1.5 million the city plans to spend on streets this year, $1 million comes from the city’s two tax increment financing districts. TIF districts allow the city to divert property tax money into a special account that is used to rehabilitate blighted areas.

However, one of the city’s TIF districts expires in 2018, while the other will expire in 2020, meaning the only source of funding left will be the local gas tax.

The above account is incorrect and incomplete. Let me count the ways. Continue reading So DeKalb Has a Streets Problem — Is TIF or a Sales Tax Hike the Answer?

Latest on the College Town Partners FOIA Matter

Let’s start with a summary of events.

— The group now known as Preserve Our Neighborhoods (PON) was formed last spring in response to concerns that residents were not being included in DeKalb-NIU redevelopment plans that would directly affect them.

— Misty Haji-Sheikh of PON received unsigned documents from an anonymous sender regarding a corporation formed for the purpose of redeveloping the John Street neighborhood.

— The corporation, College Town Partners, was of public interest because NIU and City of DeKalb were named as partners in documents related to its purpose and operations.

— Haji-Sheikh asked NIU and City of DeKalb for documents related to College Town Partners under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). DeKalb denied her some of the information under an exemption to FOIA for preliminary drafts/proposals.

— Haji-Sheikh requested that the Attorney General’s Office of Public Access review DeKalb’s denial of information to ensure the city has used the FOIA exemption properly. The AG accepted this Request for Review.

— City of DeKalb responded to the AG’s request to provide the legal basis for using the FOIA exemption(s) but in an unusual move the city asked for — and received — blanket confidentiality of its response.

— Haji-Sheikh is allowed under the review process to respond to the city’s response and she did so even though she hasn’t been allowed to read it.

Michael Haji-Sheikh has provided Misty’s response to the AG via Twitter. Continue reading Latest on the College Town Partners FOIA Matter

South 4th Water Main Project Got Weird before It Died

This is an item from the May 27 council meeting agenda that I’ve been meaning to address.

It’s about a water main project on South 4th Street.

This project would have abandoned a 6” water main on the west side of Route 23 (South Fourth Street) from Lacas Street south to approximately 110 feet south of Charter Street. There are approximately twenty services that would have been be disconnected from the 6” main on the west side of Route 23 and be reconnected to the 8” main on the east side.

The project was already coordinated with the Illinois Department of Transportation, which is planning to resurface Route 23. It does make sense to do the underground work first if possible.

However, at the May 27 council meeting the one proposal sent in was rejected. Continue reading South 4th Water Main Project Got Weird before It Died

College Town Partners Agreements are Kind of Cray, but Still Important

I’ve read the College Town Partners documents that were leaked to the Preserve Our Neighborhoods (PON) group. (Want copies? Send an email to preserveourneighborhoods@gmail.com.)

The agreements, which were never signed, lay out a corporate partnership between City of DeKalb, NIU, a local developer and two banks.

They strike me as kind of nuts, actually, being fraught with conflicts of interest that government bodies could never ignore. Whoever developed them — at this point I’m envisioning somebody’s partially demented but clout-heavy uncle who must be humored — possesses no grasp of the “public” part of public projects.

For example, the agreements place the DeKalb city manager in the position of manager of a self-interested company operating in the same community. They also attempt to make rules for the participation of the government bodies (e.g.: confidentiality, non-compete clause, predetermined developer) but that’s the flip of what’s supposed to happen.

The plans as written didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in sunlight. Still, somebody thought enough of them to stuff 60 pages into an envelope to mail to the PON folks. Why? I think it must be a warning that an awful lot of planning has been going on behind closed doors, and that some of it may not represent the public interest.

Speaking of which, let’s look at the recent naughtiness of your mayor that ties in here. Continue reading College Town Partners Agreements are Kind of Cray, but Still Important

Can DeKalb Really Help Fix NIU?

The Daily Chronicle’s editorial board scolded a group of residents this week for being total NIMBYs hating on good and necessary change.

[D]espite all the benefits that our communities draw from having the university here, there is resistance to ideas that could change the nearby neighborhoods, particularly the Ellwood historic and Hillcrest neighborhoods, where residents have formed a community group, Preserve Our Neighborhoods, in response.

People by nature don’t like change. It’s natural for them to be skeptical. But fighting to stop any change will not be good for anyone, really.

My observations suggest this is a mistaken assumption. Group members aren’t resisting change per se but rather are targeting the utter gall of NIU’s handing down a plan for their neighborhoods without their input.

Now that Preserve Our Neighborhoods has succeeded in forcing something of a pause, maybe we could productively use it to think through the notion that widening sidewalks, installing tram service and building more housing are really the best uses of resources in combating the problem of plummeting enrollment. Continue reading Can DeKalb Really Help Fix NIU?

Chronicle on the Proposed New TIF Districts

The Daily Chronicle has come out against the proposed Sycamore Road TIF District, pointing to Mayor Rey’s recent comment that two developers are interested in one of the properties even with no incentives.

So why bring tax increment financing into the equation? It certainly might give the city some more money it can spend on projects of its choosing, but it doesn’t appear necessary here.

For one thing, I think maybe NIU has gotten the idea that the city is going to fix up one of its buildings. TIF in DeKalb has ALWAYS been about generating slush for pet projects.

But tax increment financing is supposed to be used to encourage development in areas that need it, not just to generate revenue for City Hall to spend.

The South Fourth Street corridor needs redevelopment, no question. But the South Fourth plan is a horrible plan. In fact, both of the TIF proposals are bad, as in ill-conceived and lazy. The TIF consultant should be fired and the Joint Review Board publicly shamed for its lack of proper oversight.

I’m glad to hear that the city council is questioning these TIF proposals and I hope at some point this body also sees the need to review and reform how TIF plays out in DeKalb.

November 25 Council Agenda

The city has put up another meeting agenda for tomorrow that’s a revision of the original, so all you early birds will have to read the new one. However, keep the old one handy because they didn’t include the rest of the packet with the revision.

Highlights:

Item 1: Another hit to the Public Safety Building Fund.

I. Summary:
With the Police Department having effected a move to the new Police Station on West Lincoln Highway, an unanticipated need has arisen for additional communications equipment to ensure officer and public safety within the Building.

II. Background:
The new police station was designed for a high degree of security, with extensive use of steel, concrete and concrete block. The qualities of those materials that make them strong and durable also make them resistant to radio wave transmission. In short, the design and construction of the building hampers the ability of police officers to utilize their two-way mobile radios when within the building, or to hear radio traffic and respond to public safety emergencies or request assistance when within the building.

The solution to this issue is to install a bi-directional antenna system within the building that will permit direct communications with officers. The cost of this system exceeds $20,000; however, it is an urgent public safety issue that requires an immediate response and the equipment required is from a sole-source provider that has been working on the balance of the radio communication system. For both of these reasons, staff requests that the Council waive competitive bidding and award a contract to Dixon Ottawa in an aggregate amount not to exceed $25,000.

How much did the first communications system cost? Can we get our money back? Could this problem have been anticipated? How many more errors will it take to annihilate the budget? Continue reading November 25 Council Agenda

DeKalb – Firefighter Quid Pro Quo

The City of Springfield is expecting to approve a new contract with its firefighters’ union soon.

Golly, I wish we had that kind of news coverage. Remember the last-minute hoop we had to jump through to find what the 2011 contract with our firefighters was about?

The Springfield story reminded me that the longish closed sessions our council is holding lately have something to do with collective bargaining and not just horse-trading over the appointment of the new city manager. Sure enough, DeKalb’s agreement with International Association of Firefighters Local 1236 expires June 30, 2014.

I meant to look at the contract anyway because during the last council meeting, they were speaking in code while talking about the latest emergency services contract. The code was “7(g)” and turns out “7(g)” is shorthand for, “How much the city is going to pay emergency personnel to attend sporting events.”

But on to the quid pro quo. Continue reading DeKalb – Firefighter Quid Pro Quo

Egyptian Expenditures on Next Council Meeting Agenda

What timing I have! I posted city expenditures for Egyptian Theatre projects on Tuesday and now there’s a memo dated November 6 in the agenda packet for next Monday’s meeting about this (see page marked E-3, which is p. 13 of the PDF file, my emphasis added):

In March of 2013, the City Council agreed to amend the Egyptian’s FY12-13 agreement to add FY13 TIF funding in the amount of $125,000 and shift remaining bond monies to be used for the installation of a sprinkler system instead of air conditioning. Any funds leftover after the sprinkler system installation and the associated plaster repairs were completed were to be spent on a list of other prioritized expenses.

Since that time, the sprinkler system install, plaster repairs, and a significant portion of the items on the prioritized list have been done. However, due to the uncertain nature of renovating an existing historic structure, P.E.T. wanted to make sure that they had solid costs on the sprinkler system and plaster repairs prior to moving forward with the items on the prioritized list. While many of the items on the prioritized list have been checked off, they were not able to spend all of the FY13 TIF monies by the agreement deadline of October 1. The Egyptian Theatre is requesting that the remaining $90,809.82 in FY13 TIF funds be rolled into their FY14 agreement.

The Egyptian hit a deadline for FY2013 spending in October so I’m not implying anything by my remark about the timing; this item has to come up now anyway. Still, they seem to be taking lots of care to line up the ducks. Continue reading Egyptian Expenditures on Next Council Meeting Agenda