Members of the Benld City Council on Thursday night voted to enter into a $50,000 contract with HMG Engineers to design a sewer improvement project on the city’s east side. Completing the design and obtaining necessary permits from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency are the first steps toward leveraging a grant of up to $500,000 to pay for construction, according to Justin Vander Haar, representing HMG.
Aldermen also came to an agreement regarding tax rate and location restrictions in order to approve an ordinance governing recreational cannabis sales within the city limits. Recreational cannabis use will be legal in Illinois beginning Jan. 1, but the first round of state licenses for dispensaries already have been allotted. Gina Verticchio, representing City Attorney Rick Verticchio, told the council last month that even with an ordinance in place it would be mid-year 2020 before any potential dispensaries could be licensed and located in Bend.
The meeting was postponed from Monday night due to Monday’s inclement weather and road conditions.
Vander Haar told the council the proposed sewer improvement project is essentially the same project the city first considered in 2015. That first effort was shelved when the city failed in its bid to secure grant funding. Two years later, at HMG’s urging, the council attempted to secure a Community Assistance and Development Program (CDAP) grant to fund the project. Eligibility for the CDAP grant was contingent upon the city determining that at least 51 percent of the residents within the project area were low to moderate income households. Results of the survey, however, confirmed the project area did not meet the low income threshold.
“Here we are in 2019-20 pursuing the same project,” Vander Haar said.
According to Vander Haar, the state of Illinois has made significant changes to the grant program which ultimately will increase Benld’s odds of receiving a grant.
“The state found a lot of projects were getting funded for engineering but not getting built,” Vander Haar said. “Some projects were dragging on three or four years” because municipalities found they did not have the matching funds to facilitate the grant and actually built the project once the engineering and design work was completed.
“Now, you have to have a shovel-ready project before you apply for a grant,” Vander Haar said.
The original cost of the project was estimated at $800,000, but Vander Haar said the city will be able to apply for successive grants of up to $500,000 each. He said the engineering firm would submit a project with an estimated price tag in excess of $500,000 to avoid “leaving money on the table.” If the city were to receive a $500,000 grant, he said, but spend only $480,000, the $20,000 difference would have to be returned to state coffers.
Under terms of the new grant program, the state will consider the percentage of low-income residents in the entire city rather than the area impacted by the project. The city’s low-income percentage is 56 percent, well above the 51 percent threshold set by the state, according to Vander Haar.
Additionally, he said, “we can make a great case for health and safety.”
“Is this a cinch?” Ald. Jim Tilashalski asked. “Is there a chance we could be turned down?”
“You could be turned down,” Vander Haar said, but he said the city’s low-income level, plus its health and safety needs improve the city’s odds of obtaining grant funding. “You have mine subsidence, you sewers are in bad shape,” he said. Moreover, with the project design in hand, the city can apply for a grant the following year if it is unsuccessful the first time. Eventually, according to Vander Haar, the city is virtually assured of obtaining a grant.
“I think you guys will get funded,” he said.
Assuming the grant application is successful, Vander Haar said the city could be looking at construction in 2020-21. The grant application is due in August, which will give HMG time to design the project and obtain permits from IEPA. He said obtaining permits can take up to 90 days once the engineering and design work is completed.
The project tentatively calls for replacing 3,400 feet of deteriorating sewer lines located primarily on the city’s east side. Another 1,600 feet would be repaired by installing a liquid liner material. Vander Haar said that process involves spraying the liner on the inside of the sewer line, then sending a robot into the line to cut holes in the liner for existing household services. “It’s a pretty quick process,” he said.
The project also will include replacing controls for a sewage lift station on the city’s west side.
Over the life of the project, engineering fees are expected to total about $134,000, including the $50,000 project design contract approved Thursday night.
With one dissenting vote, the council approved an ordinance to authorize recreational cannabis sales within the city limits. The ordinance calls for a local sales tax of 1.5 percent to be collected on sales of cannabis products and restricts the location of cannabis dispensaries to be a minimum of 250 feet from any church or school. Ald. Dustin Fletcher, who recommended the 250-foot buffer, said that requirement will make most buildings in the Benld business district legal locations for cannabis dispensaries.
Ald. Teressa Tucker, who cast the sole negative vote, objected to the sales tax rate, arguing the city should access the full three percent maximum allowed by state law.
“I say go for the whole three percent,” Tucker said. “I know that’s not popular but with the prices they have to pay for licenses and permits, I think three percent is okay.” She also noted that the presence of a cannabis dispensary is likely to require greater police costs for the city.
“We’re not going to get one anyway,” Tucker suggested.
“You can’t say that,” City Attorney Verticchio said. “This is all new for everyone. You don’t know what may happen. You could say that with the costs they have to pay, why would they pick Benld but we just don’t know.” He said most of the communities that have passed cannabis ordinances have set their tax rate at 1.5 percent in an effort to stay competitive for attracting a dispensary.
“I think it’s a shot in the dark, so why not go for the full amount?” Tucker commented.
Ald. Lance Cooper moved to approve the ordinance with a 1.5 tax rate and a 250-foot buffer between dispensaries and schools and churches. His motion, seconded by Tilashalski, was approved 4-1 with Tucker voting “no.”
“Rick said most communities that are struggling and trying to attract businesses are going with 1.5 percent,” Cooper commented, “so that’s why I said 1.5.”
ILLINOIS ROUTE 138 PROJECT
On a motion by Ald. Mickey Robinson, seconded by Ald. Fletcher, the council unanimously approved a resolution to participate in an Illinois Department of Transportation project to repave a portion of Illinois Route 138 that also carries Central Avenue through the center of the city. Under terms of the project, IDOT will repave traffic lanes but the city will be responsible for paving parking lanes and reconfiguring sidewalks at pedestrian crossings to comply with the American with Disabilities Act. The resolution obligates the city to appropriate $73,025 for its share of the project costs, $24,342 of which will be paid to IDOT on the first anniversary of the contract award with the remainder to be paid upon the second anniversary, based on final costs.
The council unanimously approved a business license for Jackie Simons for a new business called Mustard Seed Baubles to be located on Central Avenue. Simons called herself an “interior events stylist,” saying she has operated her business from her home for several years. In addition to decorating homes and venues for events and holidays, Simons said she will offer gift items for sale. She plans to be open three days a week and by appointment.
MAINTENANCE WISH LIST
In other action, the council approved the expenditure of $652.64 for items on a “wish list” submitted by the Maintenance Department. The items to be purchased include “Men Working” signs, marking flags and dye tablets.