The Benld City Council on Monday night took under advisement the adoption of a resolution in support of legislation being sought by a not-for-profit environmental group to impose a severance tax on coal mined in Illinois. Prior to the meeting, representatives of the Community Futures Initiative, an arm of Eco-Justice Collaborative, presented a brief PowerPoint presentation outlining the proposal. The presentation can be viewed on their website.
Pam Richart, Champaign-Urbana, who founded the Eco-Justice Collaborative with her husband, Lan, told council members a five percent severance tax collected on coal currently sent out of state would generate about $141.5 million in revenue annually. Under the group’s proposal, those funds would be divided equally with one-third going to the state’s General Fund, one-third distributed to coal-producing counties on the basis of production, and one-third set aside for a trust fund to pay for recovery from environmental impacts left behind by coal production operations. Currently, coal sales are taxed at the point of sale, meaning 78 percent of Illinois’ coal production generates no revenue for the state because it is transported across state lines.
Currently, coal sales are taxed at the point of sale, meaning 78 percent of Illinois’ coal production generates no revenue for the state because it is transported across state lines
“Coal companies pass the severance tax onto its customers,” Richart said. “It doesn’t cost them anything, it doesn’t cost us anything. We already pay for it on the coal we import from Wyoming.”
The group claims that while coal represents less than one percent of the state’s gross production, the industry gobbles up nearly $20 million a year in tax subsidies, incentives and grants. Money generated from the severance tax would help cover that cost, and assist with cleaning up environmental impacts such as acidic slag piles and leaking ash ponds. Problems such as Benld’s recent issues with mine subsidence also would be subject to financial assistance through the trust fund.
Both Pam and Lan Richart said they have met with some state legislators, most of whom have been receptive to the idea.
“We think most legislators are going to want to say to their constituents that they are part of process to bring money back to their communities,” Pam said.
Mayor Gloria Sidar said she spoke with State Rep. Avery Bourne after the city began experiencing mine subsidence issues early last year.
“I told her the state needs to do something, not to just throw money at it, but something to assist with the kind of problems we’ve had here,” Sidar said, but she worried that the legislature would be able to sweep new revenue generated from the tax to help plug the growing deficit in the state budget.
Richart said that the legislation proposed by the Community Futures Initiative, the money would be earmarked in a way that would preclude it from being diverted to other purposes. Moreover, the amount of money generated, while significant for addressing coal-related environmental issues, would be insufficient for making a dent in the budget deficit.
The money coming in will not help with the state deficit, but it can do a lot at the local level
The council took no immediate action on the resolution of support, but will likely consider it at the next regular meeting in April.
In a related matter, Sidar reported that the Illinois Mine Subsidence Insurance Agency had sent a letter advising the city it will install pins and monitors at City Hall to help the agency determine if ongoing damage to the building is the result of mine subsidence and is eligible for insurance coverage. The letter indicated the study will continue for 120 days, after which another 120 days will be required to make a determination.
COMPTROLLER IS NOW OFFICE MANAGER
In other action, the council voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance amendment changing the appointed position of Comptroller to a city employee position of Office Manager. While the job duties remain the same, the change makes the position subject to a collective bargaining agreement the council approved last month with Laborers International Local 338, the union designated to represent city employees. The measure also makes the position a hired position subject to protection when the administration changes. Previously, the Comptroller was appointed by the Mayor with the consent of the council and served at the pleasure of the administration.
On a motion by Ald. Mickey Robinson, seconded by Ald. Jim Kelly, the amendment was adopted with Ald. Brian Frensko voting “present.” Frensko’s wife, Gina, currently serves in the position of Comptroller/Office Manager.
City aldermen also voted unanimously to amend an ordinance regarding the filing of liens against property owners for unpaid water/sewer bills. Under the previous ordinance, the Comptroller was directly responsible for filing a lien with the County Recorder’s Office. The change is a technical provision requiring the council to direct the Office Manager to file the lien. The significance of the change is that it allows the State Department of Revenue to withhold money from the property owner’s tax refund to help satisfy the debt.
FEE WAIVER FOR CCCC EVENTS
After hearing briefly from Brian Bequette and Annetta Veres, representing the Coal Country Chamber of Commerce, the council voted unanimously to waive $25 of the city’s $100 rental fee for city facilities for Chamber events.
Veres said the Chamber will sponsor four events in Benld this year–Fall Festival, Tour de Coal Bike Ride, Summer Concert Series and a circus.
“We feel as though we bring a whole lot of people into the community,” Veres said, pointing out those guests often patronize local businesses while in town. “Every time we have to pay rent for your facilities, it’s money we can’t spend to help other people.”
Every dollar helps
“Every dollar helps,” Veres said.
On a motion by Ald. Jim Tilashalski, seconded by Tucker, the council then voted to waive $25 of the rental fee for CCCC events on municipal properties. Ald. Mickey Robinson, who serves as CCCC Executive Director, voted “present.”
DONATIONS SOUGHT FOR BODY CAMS
Mayor Sidar reported that the Benld Police Department is participating in a program through which local individuals and businesses can make donations toward the purchase of body cameras for full-time police officers. The State Journal-Register reported earlier this week that Benld is one of 10 police departments statewide that are attempting to raise money for body cameras through BodyCameraDonations.com, a website sponsored by the founder of Wolfcom, a company that designs and manufactures body cams. While local police departments are not yet required to have body cams, Sidar said it likely to become a legal requirement in the future. Through the website, donations are applied toward the purchase of body cams at a price of $250 per camera–a $100 discount from the company’s normal pricing.
Sidar said that as news of the donation program spread earlier Monday, $250 in donations “came through the door” within a period of about two hours at City Hall.
“We are well on our way,” she said. Sidar noted that individual cameras are needed for each of the full-time officers, but only one receiver unit (which is more expensive) is required.
Members of the public who wish to donate may do so at City Hall or visit the website.
Sidar also announced that a used police car, the purchase of which the council approved two months ago, has arrived and police are in the process of transferring radios and other equipment from the older vehicle to the new car. “When that’s done, it will be on the road,” Sidar said.
TELEPHONE SYSTEM UPGRADE
The council deferred action on accepting a quote from Madison Communications to upgrade the city’s telephone system. Council members earlier voted to switch from Frontier to Madison to provide telephone and internet service because Madison offered substantially lower pricing. Madison, however, has since advised the city it must upgrade its telephone system in order for its services to work.
“Frontier had told us the same thing three years ago and they gave us a price of $3,000,” Mayor Sidar noted. Madison’s quote for the necessary upgrades amounts to $2,000.
Ald. Peyton Bernot, who was absent Monday night, was the contact person with Madison Communications and the council agreed to delay action until Bernot can confirm the quote with Madison.
The council discussed but took no formal action regarding the status of the so-called Thompson property at 600 East Central Avenue. City Attorney Rick Verticchio advised the council in January to have the building inspected to determine whether or not it can be salvaged before filing a petition for a court order to tear the building down. But Ald. Tucker reported Monday night that the city’s building inspector refused to re-enter the building for inspection.
“He said he wouldn’t go back in there without a haz-mat suit,” she said. “He cannot make an inspection until it is cleaned out.”
While city workers have cleaned up the exterior of the building, the interior reportedly remains strewn with trash and debris. Ald. Tucker said the inspector advised the council that some of the trash is of a type that could “fester” as summer temperatures start to rise.
Verticchio said he had been waiting for a decision from the council before filing suit against the property. He suggested that if the city can find a potential buyer for the property the city could enter into a contract, contingent upon the city’s acquisition of the parcel, to sell it for a specific amount that could include or exclude the cost of the clean-up.
“Wouldn’t it be smart for us to get an estimate on what it will cost to clean it up?” Tucker asked.
“Yes,” said Verticchio. “Even a buyer would want to know that.”
The council referred to the city attorney a letter from a Benld resident asking to secure an exclusive contract to raze derelict properties in exchange for salvage rights.
Council members accepted a bid of $1,000 from Ruff & Tuff Tree Service to remove a large, hollow tree in the 200 block of North Seventh Street.
In further discussion, Mayor Sidar directed Ald. Frensko to drive around the community and identify trees most in need of removal with an eye toward obtaining more favorable pricing as opposed to removing trees one at a time.
“These trees are like the coal mine, they are 100 years old and they are starting to come down,” Sidar said. “These trees were all planted at the same time and they’re all maples.”
Ald. Tucker noted there is at least one tree that is dropping branches in an area used for a school bus stop where parents and children congregate.
No action followed a brief executive session called at the end of the meeting for the purpose of discussing a personnel issue.
A measure to renew membership in the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway program failed for lack of a motion. Last year, Build Benld paid the $200 dues but later reported the Blue Carpet Corridor event did little to draw new visitors into the community. The council also declined donations to the Sheriffs Association and Gillespie Post Prom Committee, citing previous action to eliminate all city-sponsored donations.
Mayor Sidar announced that a city-wide spring clean-up has been scheduled for June 1. Residents with items to be picked up should have them on the curb by 6 a.m. that morning.
Council members also voted unanimously to accept a bid of $1,005 from Paul and Linda Rasmussen for the purchase of a surplus lot in the 700 block of Eighth Street.
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