Tuesday, October 20, 2009
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City briefs: Comcast questioned, development partnership update, treasurer's report, demolition and more

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[October 20, 2009] 

Comcast rep fields questions regarding public access television

Libbie Stehn of Comcast stood before the council Monday evening to announce price changes that the company will soon be implementing on area cable rates.

However, when she was finished speaking, the conversation quickly turned to public access and educational channel provisions in the city's contract with Comcast.

Mayor Keith Snyder said that the franchise agreement with Comcast included airing the city council meetings. He said that people have asked him how they could acquire a copy of a tape of the meetings: Would it be by contacting Comcast, or someone else? Stehn said that the meetings are a live stream, with nothing recorded, so there are no copies available.

Snyder said that the franchise agreement was originally with Continental Cable and that it included one channel shared by local origination, government access, educational and public access. Upon completion of the cable system rebuild, that company was then to provide one additional channel solely for the provision of public, educational and government access. He said that as he understood it, CITV5 is the local origination channel.

Stehn said that currently the shared channel is Channel 5 and that anyone who wants to can use that channel. She noted that local churches make their own DVDs and bring them to Channel 5 for airing.

The mayor asked about the second channel mentioned, and Stehn said that it had never been requested. She went on to say that once requested, Comcast would have to look at the cost of establishing the channel, but she did not specify who would bear the burden of the cost.

Alderwoman Melody Anderson asked about the airing of the council meetings. She said that she has had many requests that the city televise not only their Monday night voting sessions, but their Tuesday night committee-of-the-whole meetings as well. She asked if both sessions could be televised. Stehn replied that the company could certainly look into it.

In regard to the rate increases Stehn originally discussed, the non-digital "Expanded Basic" package is the only one that will be increasing. Currently consumers are paying $51 a month for that package. The fee will increase to $52.99 per month, effective with the November billing.

Stehn noted that the new price will be exactly the same as the starter digital package that the company now offers. She also noted that the digital package includes several more stations than the Expanded Basic.

She said Comcast is working to improve their customer service and is offering account credits when service is not up to par. She further stated that if a technician cannot solve a customer issue in one visit, Comcast will add complimentary premium services or offer a $20 credit to an account.

Additionally, she said that if technicians do not arrive at the home within the appointment window the customer is promised, there will be a $25 credit.

Stehn said that Comcast is also working to add more digital channels and commented on a number of sports channels that the company will be adding in the near future.

Alderwoman Kathy Horn asked about making the switch to digital, wondering what the cost of the digital receiver box is going to be. Stehn said there was no cost for that box.

Alderman Nathan Turner expressed his displeasure on the rate increase.

"You mentioned that your costs are constantly increasing," he said. "At the same time we are seeing a period of major recession. There is negative inflation throughout the entire economy; electricity prices and fuel prices have plummeted. Senior citizens will not get an increase in pay this year. We're in a situation with a natural monopoly that is cable, and you're still increasing your rates."

He went on to say: "The public is typically very unhappy when the cable rates go up. I'm just very surprised that this year especially the cable company would come and ask people to pay more money for the same cable service."

Stehn replied, "I definitely understand your concern." She went on to say that Comcast's costs have continued to rise. She also noted that Comcast is happy to say they still have 10 employees in the Lincoln area. The company has not had to lay off workers, and in fact they have added staff in the area of front-line customer service.

Development partnership update

Joel Smiley, director of the Lincoln and Logan County Development Partnership, presented an update on the partnership's recent activities. He said he had five topics he wished to discuss.

1. Economic master plan

The partnership has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Smiley said that there were only two awards given in the state of Illinois.

The funding will be used to develop an economic master plan. Smiley said that the plan will use the comprehensive plan for Lincoln and Logan County and basically draw a road map to accomplishing the goals established there.

To design the master plan effectively, Smiley needs to hire a consultant. He noted that with this grant, the partnership would be able to hire a "top-notch consulting firm."

2. Business incubator

Smiley said that there will be an official launching of the partnership's business incubator at 11 a.m. on Oct. 29. The exact location of the launch will be announced in the near future.

Smiley said that originally there had been a plan for one centralized location, but over time that evolved into a variety of locations throughout the county.

The incubator is a three-year program that will assist new businesses in finding space at a reduced cost. He said that in the first year, property leases will be discounted by 50 percent; the second year will include a 30 percent discount; and in the third year, the business will receive a 10 percent discount in their lease.

Smiley said that he has recently acquired space from MII, and so the total space available now is around 100,000 square feet.

3. SCORE to launch next week

Devonshire Realty is going to be the location for the partnership's SCORE program. Smiley said that there will be a ribbon-cutting next Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

The SCORE office will house volunteers who can work with new startup businesses in establishing and understanding their business plans and budgets.

The goal of the program is to create 100 new jobs per year.

4. Helitech agreement nearing completion

Smiley said that the deal with Helitech to come to the county would be announced within three to four weeks.

Alderwoman Marty Neitzel asked what had happened to Lincoln's involvement. She said her real question was, "What is wrong with the city of Lincoln?"

When Smiley brought the Helitech project to the council in January, the plan focused on a piece of property near Sysco where the city was the developer.

Smiley had promised 25 to 50 midrange income jobs at the new facility and had asked that the city, as the developers, forgo a sewer tap fee amounting to $5,357.

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At this week's meeting, he answered Neitzel by saying that the original plan had included a guarantee of a certain number of jobs brought to the community and that Helitech has since reduced the number of employees they plan to have at the facility.

The partnership board decided that if they were going to reduce the number of jobs, there were other areas where the company could locate in the county, considering that the property in the city was very valuable.

Smiley said that Helitech had originally approached the county about the relocation almost four years ago and that Lincoln came into it only after the partnership got involved.

Neitzel said she wanted Smiley to keep in mind that Lincoln is a part of Logan County.

Smiley said that he absolutely does keep that in mind and noted that the bulk of the business incubator will be located in Lincoln. He reminded the council that R.P. Lumber has come to town as well as Goody's under new ownership.

5. Business retention visits

Smiley said that business retention in the county is very important. To that end the partnership is doing site visits to existing businesses. The first round of what will be annual visits began in September and will wrap up in November.

He said that during these visits he has heard two very exciting ideas for the future that have come from the employers. He said he was not prepared to discuss this any further at this time.

Smiley later noted that one of the ideas includes a very large manufacturer that is looking for new locations.

September treasurer's report

Les Plotner, city treasurer, offered up his report for the month ending Sept. 30.

He noted that the accounting system at City Hall is still a work in progress and that as it evolves into what it should be, he will become more confident in the reports he is offering to the council.

He explained that while some of the expenditure reports he is working with now seem to be a little askew, there are some things that he is very certain about.

Namely, that is the drastic reduction in revenues coming into the city. Plotner said that for the year to date, the revenue from taxes is down more than $256,000. He noted that the only tax that is not seeing a reduction is the telecommunications tax, which is actually up by about $13,000.

He once again warned committee chairs to review their monthly reports very carefully. He said that if expenditures are hitting 60-70 percent of the budgeted amount while the year is only 40 percent complete, they need to investigate it and slow down the spending in their departments.

Snyder asked if Plotner had any projections on just how much revenue will be lost this year. Plotner replied that he is studying that and will have better information to answer that question in the near future.

On the good news side, Plotner announced that the estate of Russell and Helen Allen had willed $5,000 each to the city fire department and city police.

He said that there are no strings attached to the money for the police, and he believes they may choose to hold the funds until next year, when the department will need to purchase new vests for their officers.

In regard to the fire department, there is a thought that the money has to be added to the firemen's pension funds. City attorney Bill Bates and fire Chief Kent Hulett are working together to find out if that is indeed the case.

Plotner also said he had learned that there is a possibility that the city can reissue its general operating bond before the end of the year 2010.

He said that this December the city would levy the taxes to pay off the $170,000 balance on the bond. The payment would then be made in December 2010.

However, he said that according to a source at Midwest Services, the city does not have to wait until the bond is actually paid off to reissue it.

Plotner said he would continue to investigate this and see what is possible.

He advised the council that this year's six-month report will be late. He said that this is when he should be giving the report and filing a copy of it with the county. However, the report cannot be completed until the annual audit is completed, and to date that has not happened.

City Clerk Denise Martinek advised Plotner that the draft of the audit had actually arrived in her office Monday afternoon.

The draft is not the official document of the auditor. The draft must be reviewed and approved before the official document can be printed. The six-month report has to be based on the official audit.

Update on fast track to demolition

Bates said that as of last Friday, two properties, at 417 N. Madison and 718 S. College, have been posted with the intent to demolish.

Letters to interested parties of the properties have been sent via certified mail.

The public notice, which must go in a local news publication, has been sent out. The notice must be published for three consecutive days. The countdown to demolition commences at the end of the three-day period.

Once the countdown begins, the city will be on track to demolish the properties in 30 days, unless the decision is contested by an interested party of the property.

Bid for patching awarded

At the Tuesday night committee-of-the-whole meeting last week, bids were opened for patching to be completed on McLean Street at its intersections with Delavan and Pekin streets.

Illinois Valley Paving Co. bid $66,780.41, and Professional Paving Maintenance Services bid $36,678.85.

The bid was awarded to Professional Paving by a unanimous vote of 10-0.

Sale of excess property

Bids were also opened last week for the sale of a 1999 Ford pickup.

D & C Sales offered $577 for the vehicle, and a bid of $525 was entered by Mike Sutton.

By unanimous vote the truck will go to D & C Sales.

Consent agenda items approved

Oct. 26 was named Harvest of Talents Day by resolution.

The city's official trick-or-treat date and hours will be Oct. 31 from 5 to 8 p.m.

Street closures were approved for the Lincoln Christmas Parade on Dec. 3 at 7 p.m.


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