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A cautious City Council discussed capital improvement projects at the special May 17 City Council meeting, ultimately deciding they did not have sufficient information to make decisions about funding this year’s proposed and ongoing projects.

City staff provided a “Priority 1” list of 50-some projects that totaled about $34.1 million. These included a continuation of the street repairs and resurfacing and the water and sewer work, repairs to the Civic Center roof, the completion of the new firing range at the police station, technology infrastructure, and a phase of the Lakefront Master Plan. Other projects, ranked as Priorities 2 or 3, included repairs at the Dawes Park lagoon, adding a sprinkler for the playing fields at James Park, and HVAC repairs at the Main Library.

Some capital projects would be funded through general obligation (GO) bonds, said Steve Drazner of the City’s finance division. Some projects would be funded through tax-increment financing [TIF] funds, grants and capital “reserves” unspent in prior years, he said.

From the agenda and the Power-Point handout, it appeared that City staff expected the aldermen to make funding decisions about the Priority 1 projects, perhaps swapping some of those with ones ranked as Priority 2 or Priority 3.
Aldermen, however, appeared to be uncomfortable with several aspects of the presentation, including the priority ranking of the projects; the vagueness about which projects were ongoing, which were not yet begun and which were near completion; and the incomplete information about whether the City would have to match funds on some of the grant-funded projects.

The three residents who spoke during the citizen comment  portion of the meeting seemed to set the tone for the evening, all suggesting that Council members be judicious about their choice of projects and be careful about incurring more debt for the City.

Junad Rizki said he was concerned about how projects are being staffed in light of recent layoffs at the City. “What has not been done? What has been completed? … I’m concerned that we’re hiring a lobbyist and don’t have enough professional staff,” he said, then repeated the warning sounded earlier this month by Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl: Property taxes will increase next year.

Jeanne Lindwall echoed a concern about property taxes. “I want to remind you that a bond sale with unabated GO could mean a property tax increase.” She suggested that the City consider creating a capital maintenance fund within the General Fund (the City’s main operating fund) to pay for small capital projects – rather than issuing more debt. She also asked the Council to consider whether some street-resurfacing projects could be deferred.

Carl Bova said he hoped the Council would consider whether the cost of a long-term project was “worth it. … Does the project have a life-cycle that exceeds the term of the debt?”

He added, “Consider each project as if you had to spend your last dime on it.”
Aldermen Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, expressed concern that the project lists prepared by staff contained only a description of each project, the cost and the funding source.

“Don’t we need to know at least the status of the contracts [for the projects]?” asked Ald. Rainey.  

Ald. Burrus added, “We have by no means approved any of the projects on [the Priority 1] list.”

Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, expressed similar concerns, saying it would be difficult to vote on projects without knowing their status. “There aren’t many points where we can [reducing funding when contracts are in place],” he said. “If there’s a way to present about what we can actually do [that would help]. … I realize the information is in [the packet presented to the Council], but it’s pretty hard to extract.”

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, asked whether projects marked as funded from grants also required matching funds from the City. As an example, she said both she and Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, had understood that the roadwork on Isabella Street, a joint project with the Village of Wilmette, was to be funded with revenues from the motor fuel tax, a tax collected locally then remitted to municipalities on a per-capita basis.

The City list, however, reflected a cost of $130,000. A City engineer responded that a matching grant was required and that it would be “slightly higher than the $130,000 shown on the schedule.

Mr. Drazner said he did not “have that information handy on whether grants require matching funds.”

Apparently judging that the mood of the Council was that City staff needed to provide clearer and more detailed information, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz suggested that staff members incorporate Council members’ concerns and present a more detailed capital improvement program in June.