During a marathon session lasting nearly four hours Wednesday night, members of the Gillespie City Council, Mayor John Hicks and Treasurer Dan Fisher defended the city’s decisions regarding a newly constructed solar panel field adjacent to the city water treatment plant, approved an ordinance to increase water rates for city users, approved payment of a $2,800 termination settlement to a former Water Department employee and directed City Attorney Kevin Polo to write an draft ordinance which would permit Darts for Kids to conduct a Queen of Hearts drawing. During the course of the meeting, city officials huddled behind closed doors in executive session three times.
Nearly 40 spectators attended the meeting, requiring the council to move the venue from the council chambers to the Civic Center to accommodate visitors. A majority of those visitors apparently wanted answers to questions about the solar panel project, including concerns about the bidding process for the project. George Link, whose home is located adjacent to the project, again voiced objections to the location of the solar panel field, as did Kevin Sievers, a developer who owns several lots behind the field. Sievers said he had plans to build houses on the lots he owns, but the presence of the solar field is likely to “be a drawback.”
Link, who last month threatened to pursue legal action against the project, spoke several minutes before turning to Fisher, who spearheaded the project, and asking if Fisher contracted with Illinois Solar to install solar panels at his home. “You’re done, George,” a clearly flustered Mayor Hicks said as he banged the gavel. Gillespie Police Sgt. Laurie Gerdes moved between Link and Hicks, and directed Link to sit down. Link’s personal attorney (and son-in-law) Jared Giuffre rushed to escort his client back to his seat.
Before being silenced, Link questioned whether the council voted specifically to locate the panels where they have been installed. While the council voted to accept the Illinois Solar’s bid of $387,000 to install the project, Link said there was no vote taken on where to locate the panels. “I’m not against the solar project,” Link said. “What I’m saying is that it was done without your consent.”
Link asserted the city owns acreage where the solar panels could have been more appropriately located without affecting his property’s value. “You have more acreage behind the water plant,” he said, producing photos which he said demonstrated the location receives as much sunlight as the site that was selected. Moreover, he pointed out that the panels were placed on property already owned by the city, rather than on lots the city purchased from Community Unit School District 7 ostensibly to accommodate the solar project.
Hicks said the site was selected by the contractor with input from city engineers and that the former school district property may be used in the future if the city decides to expand the size of the solar field. Hicks alleged the solar field was an improvement over the formerly vacant lot that once was used to store pipe, a surplus city truck and a decrepit storage building that has since been removed. The site, he said, is the optimum site for efficiency and sun exposure.
Hicks rejected the idea that the solar field could be located further away from the water plant, saying that transmitting power from a solar field located some distance away would be inefficient and result in degrading the energy delivered to the plant. “You don’t want to have it a half-mile away and have to run a line all the way back,” he said.
Local electrician Tom Bauer asked why the city failed to “reach out” to local contractors to bid on the project, choosing instead to accept the single bid submitted by Illinois Solar, Litchfield.
“You didn’t reach out to me for this,” Bauer said. “You made it so only one person could bid.”
Ald. Frank Barrett drew applause when he agreed with Bauer that the city is not always diligent about doing business with local contractors.
Ron Presnell echoed Bauer’s concerns, questioning why the city did not rebid the project when it received only one bid.
“That’s a lot of money that belongs to the people of this town,” Presnell said. “You advertised in a paper out of town that a lot of people don’t see.” Fisher acknowledged that the legal notice seeking bids was published in the Litchfield News-Herald, a daily publication. Hicks said placing the ad in the local weekly newspaper would have required the city to wait a week before publishing the notice. In addition to the legal notice, Fisher said the city published an invitation to bid in the Southern Illinois Builders Association newsletter, and specifically reached out to three other contractors the city believed would be interested in submitting a bid.
Link countered that he talked with one of the four vendors contacted by the city. “He said he didn’t bid because he felt it (the bidding specifications) were written for one contractor.”
Former Ald. Steve Kluthe said he was on the council when the project was first proposed. He said that at that time, he advised Fisher to avoid catering to the vendor who installed solar panels at his home to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. He acknowledged, however, that the project is essentially set in stone at this point. “I just think you guys didn’t think this through before you voted on it,” Kluthe said. “Let’s find common ground now and deal with it.”
Suffering from a sore throat, Fisher used a microphone to address some of the concerns voiced during the meeting.
“It’s a fallacy that if you rebid a project you’re automatically going to get a lower bid,” he said, noting that depending on market conditions some contractors may drop out of the bidding process, opening the door to vendors who submit higher bids. He also denied Illinois Solar was favored because of work the company had previously done at his home.
“There have been some insinuations,” he said. “I’m getting nothing out of this. The first company to do a presentation for us was not, in fact, Illinois Solar.” That company that originally approached the city was among the four the city contacted for bids.
“We developed this project over a period of a couple of years,” he said. During that time, he said he participated in a University of Illinois Extension webinar on solar energy and heard presentations from solar energy companies. “We were doing our due diligence over a couple of years.”
When Blackburn College undertook a massive solar panel project, city officials directed Curry and Associates, the engineering firm retained by the city, to contact the college to get information to develop specifications for the Gillespie project. Illinois Solar was the contractor for the Blackburn project.
Regarding the location, Fisher said it was the opinion of the engineers and the vendor that the site chosen was the optimum location for the solar panel field. At a later date, he said the city plans to install fencing and develop landscaping that should help mitigate negative impacts on neighboring property values.
David Ronen, representing Illinois Solar told the council and spectators that the project is essentially complete and should be turned on next week, pending approvals from Ameren Electric. Responding to a question from Ald. Barrett, Ronen said the company paid workers prevailing wages during the construction as required by city ordinance and state law.
“Every project we’ve ever done, we always pay prevailing wages,” he said.
Ronen reiterated that the selected location is the optimum site for the solar panel field. Acreage behind the water plant was eliminated from consideration because of the presence of overhead transmission lines. While photos provided by Link may show similar amounts of sunlight at this time of year, Ronen said the selected site has optimum sunlight throughout the year.
“I understand George’s feelings, but in your mind was that the best location for this?” Ald. Dona Rauzi asked.
“Yes,” Ronen replied. “If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have put it there.”
Ald. Wendy Rolando also empathized with Link’s position.
“If it was my property, would I be happy with it? I’ll tell you right out that I wouldn’t,” Rolando said. “On the flip side, you can’t control what goes on that property because you don’t own it. The city owns it and the city had to do what was in the best interest of the city.”
Jim VanDoren, whose residence actually is located in East Gillespie, also complained about a situation that arose when new water lines were installed in East Gillespie as part of the city’s water infrastructure replacement project. He said the original blueprint for the project showed a water line being installed within one and one-half feet of his front steps. He said he had to spend $2,000 for a survey to demonstrate the city had no easement for the alignment. VanDoren acknowledged workers changed the alignment to his satisfaction but he remained disgruntled about having to arrange for a survey to protect his property interest.
NEW WATER RATES
With minimal discussion, the council approved an ordinance to increase water rates paid by residential users on a motion by Ald. Dave Tucker. The ordinance appears to be effective immediately and the price hike should appear on the next billing cycle. Under the ordinance, the minimum bill for usage of up to 1,000 gallons will go to $18.20, with a charge of $6.58 for each additional 1,000 gallons.
The increases represent the latest iteration of several planned rate increases designed to generate revenue to retire debt associated with the ongoing water infrastructure replacement project.
In a related matter, the council approved an ordinance authorizing the issuance of up to $6,350,000 in Series A Waterworks System Revenue Bonds and $600,000 in Series B bonds to generate up to $6,950,000 to help pay for the infrastructure project. Previous estimates put the total estimated cost of the project at about $10 million, a portion of which will be covered by USDA Rural Development grants.
The bond issue was previously approved by the council, but Wednesday night’s action will allow the city to take advantage of lower interest rates than previously accepted. City Attorney Polo said the rate until the end of the calendar year is 1.75 percent.
“To my knowledge, this is the lowest interest rate ever offered” by USDA, Fisher said.
Later in the meeting, the council authorized payment of $517,906.70 to Haier Plumbing and Heating, Okawville, for work completed to date on the water infrastructure project, and $6,475 to Polo for legal work completed in association with the project.
On a motion by Ald. Tucker, the council voted unanimously to pay a $2,800 settlement to a Water Department employee terminated last month as a result of a Laborers Union grievance filed in connection with the dismissal. The action followed the third and final executive session of the evening, which lasted about 10 minutes.
A divided city council voted 4-2 last month to terminate the employee.
QUEEN OF HEARTS
After hearing a presentation from Tammy Hudzik, representing Darts for Kids, the council directed Polo to draft an ordinance that would allow the not-for-profit organization to sponsor a Queen of Hearts raffle. The raffles have been popular in other communities and are known for eye-popping jackpots and large crowds.
Hudzik said the Darts for Kids organization has raised and given away $47,000 to families of children with serious medical conditions. In the past eight years, she said, the organization has assisted 104 children in the community. “There’s not one kid who has come to us for help that we haven’t helped,” she said. The Queen of Hearts raffle, she said, would provide an opportunity for the organization to generate substantial revenue to continue its work.
Seventy-five percent of the revenue would go to the final winner. Hudzik proposed splitting the remaining 25 percent between Darts for Kids and the city with the city’s share earmarked for Big Brick park or some other public recreation facility. She asked for permission to park cars at the Civic Center to accommodate the expected crowds. She also pledged to allow other charitable causes, such as Band Boosters, to piggy-back with the event by selling 50/50 tickets during Queen of Hearts nights.
“I talked to the police chief and he said 200 to 300 cars would be no different than a large wedding reception,” she said. “If it’s more than that, we’ll deal with it.”
“This has come up before the council before,” Polo said. “The problem is that our gambling ordinance doesn’t allow it.” With the council’s direction, Polo said he could write an ordinance to allow non-profit organizations that have been in existence for at least five years to operate a raffle for charitable purposes.
“Let’s try it,” Ald. Rauzi suggested. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Polo said the city is prohibited from accepting a donation directly from the raffle, but that Hudzik could donate a portion of the proceeds to a group or foundation that supports recreational facilities on city parks.
ENTERPRISE ZONE EXPANSION
Council members voted unanimously to approve an ordinance agreeing to expand the Macoupin County Enterprise Zone to include 2.1 acres in Gillespie where the Macoupin County Housing Authority plans to build 20 single family units for low income seniors. The project is valued at about $6 million, according to Marybeth Bellm, County Economic Development Coordinator, who presented the Enterprise Zone proposal to the council.
Inclusion in the Enterprise Zone will allow the developers to purchase building materials from Macoupin County suppliers without having to pay sales tax. Bellm said MCHA understands the original Enterprise Zone authority is nearing expiration and the perks of being in the Zone may be short-lived. Gillespie has joined with Carlinville and the County government in supporting a renewal for the Enterprise Zone.
Expanding the Enterprise Zone requires the approval of all three partners. The County Board already has approved the expansion and the City of Carlinville is expected to act before the end of the month.
APPRAISAL REIMBURSEMENT REJECTED
The council took no action on a request from Adam Tallman to reimburse costs he incurred to have a property on South Macoupin Street appraised. That property has since been sold to Dave Link. Tallman, who initially agreed to buy the property, said he spent $300 for the appraisal and $500 to have the property surveyed. He later reneged on the agreement and the city subsequently sold the property to Link using Tallman’s appraisal to set the price.
State law allows municipalities to arrange for the private sale of surplus property as long as the buyer pays at least 80 percent of the appraised value.
Tallman argued that Link should have been forced to have his own appraisal done, noting that his appraisal was for his use only.
“But you gave it to us,” Polo told Tallman, suggested that the way Tallman “used” the appraisal was to supply it to the city to determine the price before Tallman withdrew from the purchase agreement. At the time, the purchase arrangement was a bone of contention among the city, Link and Tallman. Link, in fact, agreed to pay more for the property but the city refused to sell it to him because of the prior agreement with Tallman. “We agreed to sell it to you for less money than the other buyer was willing to pay and, at the last minute, you walked away. You provided the appraisal to us and we relied on it (to set the price).”
Polo said it cost the city money when Tallman declined the sale “because it took some time to prepare the sale and we turned down a buyer willing to pay more.” After Tallman rejected the agreement, the city sold the property to Link for the same price it had been offered to Tallman.
“I think it’s a moot point,” Ald. Rolando said, “because we sold it to Dave (Link) for the exact same price.”
After the discussion, no alderman was willing to make a motion to reimburse Tallman and the issue died.
In other action, the council:
- Accepted a low bid of $2,830 from Bennett Heating and Cooling to install a 70,000-BTU furnace in the shower house at the Gillespie Lake campground with an eye toward expanding the camping season.
- Approved a lake lot lease transfer to Dale and Mary Busler for Lot 369D on Crappie Lane.
- Gave the committee power to act on whether or not to declare as a public nuisance a property located at 502 West Henrietta Street once the property has been inspected.
- Agreed to allow organizers to use city property again next summer for a Community Garden to grow vegetables for distribution throughout the Gillespie Caring Center.
- Approved an ordinance to continue to lease the former UCB Building, now owned by the city, to the Illinois Coal Museum for a token payment of $1 per year.
- Upon the recommendation of Police Chief Jared DePoppe, hired Jeffrey Schoen as a full-time police officer and to pay for Sally Arbuthnot, Jerseyville, to attend the state police academy to qualify for employment as a part-time officer.