Wednesday, July 13, 2011
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Water shut-offs, stop signs and more

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[July 13, 2011]  Tuesday evening all 10 aldermen representing the city of Lincoln were in council chambers at City Hall for their regular committee-of-the-whole workshop meeting.

Water shut-off contract is back on the agenda for next week

Since the fall of 2009, aldermen have struggled with what to do about collecting the near $250,000 in delinquent sewer fees from city residents who have fallen behind in their payments.

Several options have been explored, from digging up sewers to turning property owners over to collection agencies.

In recent weeks, the council approved the use of a collection agency, but Tuesday night Alderwoman Marty Neitzel said she wanted to once again reconsider using water shut-offs as a means of collection.

The first of this year, Alderman Buzz Busby brought to the council an agreement with Illinois American Water in which the company would, by order of the city, and for a fee, turn off water service to a residence where sewer bills were going unpaid.

The agreement includes a $65 disconnect fee, a $65 reconnect fee and reimbursement to the water company for their revenues lost, all payable by the city.

The contract also includes a liability clause that holds the city fully responsible for any liability lawsuits that might come as a result of Illinois American's actions.

At that time, the liability clause was of great concern to city attorney Bill Bates. The council asked that he, Busby and Snyder contact Illinois American about modifying the clause, but their request did not yield the desired results.

When the question of entering into the contract came up for a vote several weeks ago, it was voted down, with several aldermen still expressing concern over that clause.

Since then the city treasurer and city clerk, Chuck Conzo and Denise Martinek, have had conversations with a variety of cities that use the shut-off agreement with Illinois American as a means of collecting debt.

Conzo and Martinek have in particular had several conversations with the treasurer of the city of Belleville, who shared that the shut-off of water is a very effective means of collecting the sewer fees.

Belleville provided Conzo and Martinek with a copy of their agreement with the water provider, and Conzo reported that it is virtually the same as the agreement Illinois American offered Lincoln.

He said that in discussing the liability issue with the Belleville treasurer, he was told that it had not been a problem for that city. Conzo also noted that Belleville went from only about 75 percent of their accounts being current to over 90 percent once the shut-off program was started.

Tuesday evening, Neitzel said she thought it would be worth the risk, and she wants the council to once again vote on the issue this coming week.

During discussion, the subject of the fees for disconnect and reconnect came up. Alderwoman Melody Anderson said there wasn't money in the budget for the city to cover the costs involved, but some wondered if the steep late charges imposed on delinquent accounts could help cover the cost.

It was also discussed whether ordinances would need to be written if the city imposed those fees on the customer. Bates did some quick research through city code and found the necessary ordinances already exist.

In addition, it was discussed how property owners and residents would be notified of the impending disconnect.

Letters will be sent out twice warning of the disconnection and urging payment before the city orders the water shut-off. These letters will go to both landlords and tenants when rental property is involved, and both the landlord and tenant may be held responsible for the payment of the bill.

As discussions drew to an end, the item was placed on next week's agenda.

Conzo also talked briefly about the use of a collection agency, saying the city would be well advised not to do away with that practice as it can still be used for those who move out of the city still owing on their sewer bills.

Willard Avenue residents request four-way stop at Willard and Sherman

During the public participation portion of the meeting, Sarah Wilson of the 400 block of Willard Avenue addressed the council with a request for a four-way stop to be placed at the intersection of Willard Avenue and South Sherman Street.

Wilson came armed with a petition bearing 37 signatures of residents living on Willard on either side of that intersection.

She told the council that the lack of stop signs at the intersection is resulting in motorists speeding on the residential streets and has resulted in several near misses as well as actual accidents.

Wilson talked specifically about an accident in April when a car traveling at high speed had hit a full-sized pickup truck with such force that it resulted in a rollover incident for the truck.

She also noted that when she went door to door with her petition, everyone was anxious to sign, hoping that something can be done, and several also gave her accounts of their own near misses at the intersection.

During discussion, Mike Geriets, deputy chief of police, said there was an issue with speeding at that intersection, and he felt that a stop was warranted. He noted that if the city chose to do only a two-way, the stop should then go on Sherman. He noted that in that stretch of street there is a hill involved, and vehicles are traveling at higher rates of speed on the hill.

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Mayor Keith Snyder wondered whether a traffic count survey needed to be conducted by the street department, as many times that is called for when a stop sign is requested.

Joni Tibbs, who represents that area as alderwoman, said she didn't believe the problem was the number of vehicles traveling the road, but rather the speed they travel, and she endorsed adding the stop to help slow the drivers down.

There was also some discussion as to whether the stop needed to be four-way or if it could be a two-way stop on Sherman. Alderman David Wilmert commented, saying that if it made no difference in the ordinances that would have to be written, he felt the council should give the residents what they are asking for: a four-way stop.

In the end, all agreed, and the request for the four-way stop at the intersection of Willard and Sherman was added to next week's voting agenda.

Policy on clothing allowances raises questions

Last week, Anderson, who chairs the finance committee, pulled three invoices out of the stack of bills to be paid, saying she wanted them excluded from the approval for payment until they could be further researched and discussed.

At the workshop meeting, she explained that the bills she had removed from the stack were for reimbursements to city police officers for their clothing allowance.

She noted that the police chief, deputy chief and detective are each allowed $500 per year for clothing. The disbursement is generally made twice per year and is a straight payment to the officers, with no requirement for receipts showing how the money was used.

Anderson said the police department is the only one that receives this type of disbursement -- all other departments have to submit receipts for their purchases -- and she wondered if this was something that needed to be changed.

During discussion it was brought up that from the viewpoint of an auditor, paying a bill without a receipt for the merchandise was not a good practice.

However, because it has been a standard practice in the past, it was also discussed as to whether it would be right to deny the existing requests.

In the end, the group decided to honor the current requests and to initiate a change in the policy for the future so that when clothing purchases must be made, receipts must be turned in for reimbursement.

Committee formed to search for city administrator

Snyder told the council he has chosen Wilmert and Alderman Tom O'Donohue to serve on a committee to search for a new city administrator.

He said the first step of the committee will be to write a viable job description. The committee will create a draft and bring it to the council for approval as soon as possible.

Snyder also noted that the council will have to create the new position in the city ordinances and will be able to use the job description as the foundation of the ordinance.

Snyder is hoping to have the position filled by the first of November but said it was going to be a push to get everything accomplished on that timeline.

Updates on redistricting issues

Snyder shared that he has talked with Harris & Associates, which has done work for the county on the issues of mapping and redistricting, and they are willing to work on the city's issues as well.

In the last census, the city fell short of its 15,000 population by about 500 residents. As a result, Illinois law requires that the city remap the wards, reducing the number from five to four and eliminating two city aldermen.

Snyder said the firm has indicated they can do the work for around $150 per hour.

In addition, Wilmert said he has spent some time discussing this with Darren Forgy and Lisa Kramer of Prairie Engineers. They have discussed whether or not the city could do some annexing to increase the overall population.

It was discussed that if the city were to annex one or both of the correctional facilities, the population would then increase by between 900 and nearly 3,000 individuals.

Wilmert said that in considering this option, there would also be a concern regarding the effect it would have on the county.

No action is being taken on this issue now. The city has until approximately December of 2012 to come up with a solution.

As the evening drew to a close, guests and media were dismissed so that the council could go into executive session to discuss acquisition of land.


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