Members of the Benld City Council on Monday night approved resolutions to declare two properties as public nuisances, hired a third Maintenance Department employee, and reorganized the Zoning Board to purge city aldermen from membership. But it was an extensive, sometimes heated, debate about cutting trees that took center stage.
Ald. Jim Tilashalski objected to a motion by City Property Chair John Balzraine to remove fours trees from public boulevards at a cost of $1,300, prompting Ald. Dustin Fletcher to eventually offer a revised motion to remove two trees on North Eighth Street at a cost not to exceed $1,300. That motion was approved with a unanimous vote of the aldermen, including Tilashalski.
Originally, Balzraine presented a bid of $1,300 from Emmons Tree Service, Carlinville, to remove the two trees on North Eighth Street, along with trees on South Eighth Street at Illinois Route 138 and at the intersection of Sixth Street and Central Avenue. Both Balzraine and Fletcher characterized the trees as safety hazards, noting that roots from the South Eighth and Sixth Street trees are pushing up sidewalks adjacent to them.
“The tree on South Eighth Street is a beautiful live tree,” Tilashalski objected. “It doesn’t interfere with power lines. It doesn’t interfere with putting up Christmas lights or flags.” The Sixth Street tree also is a live tree, he noted. While its branches have grown into nearby power lines, Tilashalski said the city could avoid spending money on it by having Ameren trim the tree away from power lines.
“I’m strongly opposed to cutting down those two live trees,” Tilashalski said. “There’s always more than one way to solve a problem other than taking the drastic step of cutting down a live tree.”
“Don’t you think it would make Main Street look better,” Balzraine asked Tilashalski, referencing the tree on Central Avenue.
“No,” Tilashalski asserted, “it’s a beautiful tree.”
Balzraine bristled as Tilashalski alleged Balzraine’s goal is to remove all the trees on Central Avenue.
“Whether you like it or not, those trees (on Central Avenue) are going to come down if we get the sidewalk grant,” Balzraine said. The city has applied for a state grant to replace sidewalks on Central Avenue. If the application is successful, the Illinois Department of Transportation will require tree removal to meet ADA standards regarding sidewalk width.
Tilashalski said he took Balzraine’s comment as a threat. “I’m here to represent people in my ward,” he said, “and that’s what I try to do.” Tilashalski also questioned the City Property Committee’s decision to present only one bid, to which Balzraine responded that single bid contracts for tree removal has been a common practice for a number of years.
“I’d like to see at least two bids,” Tilashalski said. “It doesn’t look good.”
Ultimately, Fletcher ended the debate by moving to give the City Property Committee authority to remove two dead trees at a cost not to exceed $1,300. City Attorney Rick Verticchio recommended contacting Ameren to trim the tree on Sixth Street at Central Avenue to clear power lines. After the meeting adjourned, though, it was determined the lines on which the tree encroaches belong to the city.
Fletcher initially suggested looking into bids for trimming live trees in need of attention but Mayor Kelly said the city has never paid for tree trimming services.
Earlier in the meeting, Tilashalski critiqued the Public Works Committee until Mayor Kelly cut the discussion short. Tilashalski complained that in his 10-year tenure on the council, he has never had a comprehensive picture of what the Public Works Department is doing at any given time.
“Who assigns work, who evaluates the job on completion, who makes long-range plans?” he asked. He said committee reports during regular council meetings usually consist of vague information such as “we’re digging ditches.”
“We have no idea of what’s going on,” he said.
“Jim, you’ve never asked me about anything,” Committee Chair Fletcher responded. “You can ask me anything you want to know anytime.”
“I think this is something that should be discussed at the committee level,” Mayor Kelly said, before moving on to the next agenda item.
ZONING BOARD REORGANIZATION
On the mayor’s recommendation, the council accepted the resignations of Balzraine, Fletcher and Jerry Saracco from the city’s Zoning Board. Kelly said he learned that city aldermen cannot serve as members of the Zoning Board.
“It’s my fault completely,” said Kelly, who appointed all three aldermen to fill vacancies on the council, “but we need to rectify it.”
In addition to accepting the three resignations, the council approved Kelly’s appointment of Dennis Gardner, Tom Allan and Ed Saracco to five-year terms to fill the newly created vacancies, and reappointed Terri Koyne as board chairperson, and members Peg Allan, Norm Emmons and Tony Rebes.
Council members voted unanimously to declare the former Tarro Grocery building on Central Avenue and a residential property in the 400 block of South Second Street as nuisance properties. The Tarro building, now used to store religious statuary, reportedly is in a state of deterioration and the South Second property has a garage with a collapsed roof. The nuisance property designation authorizes the City Attorney to give property owners formal notices of deficiencies in need of attention, and to pursue further legal action if they fail to correct the deficiencies within a specified period.
In a related matter, council members asked Verticchio to accelerate action against the owners of the former bank building on Central Avenue. Ald. Saracco noted the building continues to pose a public safety hazard with metal sheets blowing off the structure. He also noted that a side door on the building allegedly is unlocked and accessible; at least one individual has been witnessed leaving the building via the unlocked door and maybe living in the building.
Verticchio said the city could get emergency permission from the court to board up the door and make other repairs to the structure to stabilize it. The city, however, probably would be unable to recover the cost of those actions. The city could put a lien on the property to recover costs when the property is sold but the lien could easily outstrip the amount of the sale, especially if the city ends up demolishing the building. In a similar situation recently, Verticchio said, the city spent $25,000 in court costs and other expenses.
The city cannot step in and make repairs without going to court, Verticchio said, unless a police officer advises the city that immediate action is needed to protect the public.
Kelly said he would ask Gillespie Police Chief Jared DePoppe to look at the building and possibly issue a citation that would allow the city to board up the open door.
“Before we start boarding up that building, I want someone to sweep to make sure we’re not boarding someone up inside,” Kelly said.
Verticchio reported he will present an ordinance and map at the December council meeting to realign city wards. The adjustments are required by law following the 2020 census. Verticchio said he had hoped to have the ordinance ready for the November meeting but was delayed in preparing the document.
The new map reportedly will reconfigure the third ward slightly to equalize the population living within each ward.
“Pete (Duncan, County Clerk) says he wants it by the end of the year,” Verticchio said. “They want to send out new voter registration cards in January ahead of the 2022 elections.”
PUBLIC WORKS EMPLOYEE
With one dissenting vote, the council hired Bill Sloan as a full-time Maintenance Department employee. Sloan, currently a part-time employee, was one of three applicants for the job.
Tilashalski voted “no,” explaining that he objected to hiring a third Maintenance Department employee.
“I have nothing against Bill Sloan,” he said.
In other personnel action, the council authorized Christmas bonuses of $125 for full-time employees and $75 for part-timers.
Council members voted unanimously to purchase a used van from John Koster/Koster Construction, Carlinville, for $17,000 to be used by the Maintenance Department. The 2017 Chevrolet has 75,000 miles on the odometer.
The council unanimously approved a business license for Jeanine Fassero, who plans to open Nature’s Bliss at 104 N. Hardroad. The business will offer soaps and skincare products.