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Benld Council eyes lagoon maintenance, votes to accept annual audit report

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A rendering of tentative plans for the Benld Sports Association complex pending the receipt of a grant and private funding.

Benld City Council members voted unanimously Monday night to spend more than $11,000 to determine the volume of sludge settled at the bottom of the city’s sewage lagoon and determine the best course of action to deal with it. The council also voted to accept the annual city audit following a brief meeting with the city’s auditor, voted to make the first payment to Haier Plumbing and Heating for the first segment of work completed on an extensive sewer improvement project, and authorized the mayor to purchase a $100,000 tractor with a boom mower attachment.

Justin VonderHaar of HMG Engineers reported that representatives of Illinois Environmental Protection Agency investigated the lagoon in February but rendered a final report only recently. The report generally approved of the lagoon operation except for the amount of sludge the lagoon is carrying. He recommended hiring Water Treat Technology, Centralia, to use a remote control ground penetrating radar device to measure the volume of sludge in the lagoon at a cost of $3,250.

Before the sludge can be measured, however, VonderHaar said the city must control an infestation of duckweed to clear the way for the sludge-measuring device. VonderHaar said duckweed is difficult to eradicate but he recommended hiring Water Treat Technology at a cost of $8,380 to treat the invasive aquatic weeds. He said the city would be unable to discharge water from the lagoon for a 48-hour period after treatment, and recommended lowering the water level before treatment and scheduling the treatment for a time when rain is not in the immediate weather forecast.

On a motion by Ald. Jerry Saracco, seconded by Ald. Mickey Robinson, the council voted unanimously to accept VonderHaar’s recommendation to hire Water Treat Technology at a total cost of $11,630.64.

Once the volume of sludge is determined, the city will need to decide how to deal with it. VonderHaar said dredging the lagoon would be the most expensive option. An alternative would involve aeration and the addition of biological agents to consume the sludge and reduce its volume. The cost of adding aeration units, he said, could be as much as $85,000.

Apart from the duckweed issue, VonderHaar also noted the edges of the lagoon are choked with phragmites, similar to cattails, which also need to be removed. Like duckweed, phragmites do not reliably respond to traditional herbicides. One option under discussion, he said, is the possibility of allowing a private individual to release goats on the property to eat the vegetation, including the phragmites.

“My opinion is EPA was very lenient,” VonderHaar said. “They were here in February. If they went out there now, it would be different. It’s in rough shape.”

Later in the meeting, the council authorized Mayor Jim Kelly and the city Maintenance Director to purchase a 2016 John Deere 6110 tractor with a 20-foot boom mower attachment at a cost of $100,000. The used unit has 500 hours on it and is located in Fenton, MO. Kelly said he and the Maintenance Director will examine the machine and test drive it before committing to the purchase.

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Kelly said the equipment will allow maintenance workers to mow down to the water line at the lagoon and will be used for other projects where a boom mower is needed. The city has tried to rent a similar unit for the past three years but hasn’t found one available for rent.

“We haven’t been able to rent one for the past three years, which is why our lagoon looks the way it does,” he said.

Kelly said the city plans to post a downpayment of $10,000. Carlinville National Bank will finance the purchase over five years with payments amounting to $1,600 per month.

Finance Committee Chair Saracco expressed concerns about projected upcoming expenditures, including the $85,000 or more that may be needed to address the lagoon issue.

“We don’t have any new businesses coming into town,” he said. “We don’t have the money.”

WATER RATE INCREASE

Responding to a rate increase on bulk water imposed by the City of Gillespie, the council agreed to raise the minimum bill for individuals from $12 to $13 per month. The rate increase will be reflected on customer bills in October.

Accountant Keith Brinkmann presented the audit, commending the city for living within its means and exercising outstanding oversight over the expenditure of public funds.

City Clerk Terri Koyne said she averaged the city’s monthly consumption of treated water from Gillespie and determined the city will be paying about $750 more per month for water. With the number of customers on the Benld water system, she said the $1 increase would be adequate to cover the increase in cost.

“Our water rates are still cheaper than what they were before the sewer rate increase,” she said. To qualify for a grant to help pay for sewer improvements, the council raised sewer rates several months ago but decreased the water rate by the same amount so consumers’ total bills remained relatively the same.

SEWER IMPROVEMENT PROJECT

Council members authorized an initial payment of $174,828 to Haier Plumbing and Heating for work completed as of Sept. 8 on the city’s sewer improvement project. The payment represents $194,178 for completed work, less a 10 percent retain age. VonderHaar said the payment leaves about $444,500 in funds yet to be paid as work progresses on the $550,000 project.

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The project calls for replacing about 3,400 feet of deteriorating sewer lines on the city’s east side and re-lining about 1,600 feet that can be salvaged with lining.

VonderHaar reported that workers recently ran into a problem on the south side of the city park where an influx of water stymied progress on laying new sewer lines. The engineer said some of the water apparently came from a previously unknown water leak in the water line supplying the park. Workers turned off water for the park, which reduced the flow of water into the trench but a substantial amount of water continues to flood the trench, apparently coming from an underground spring.

VonderHaar said the influx of water was so significant that at a depth of about 12 feet, a slurry of sand and water flowed over the top of the trenching box onto workers in the trench. He said workers are attempting to pump water out of the trench in order to complete work. VonderHaar said workers should know by Tuesday if pumping alone would be sufficient to control the water.

If workers have to construct drainage wells, VonderHaar said the contract cost could potentially increase. At this point, he said, the increased cost is minimal, limited primarily to the cost of additional rock.

Responding to a question from Ald. Saracco, VonderHaar said the presence of spring water should have no long term detrimental effects on the project. In theory, water from the spring will travel along the trench and ultimately drain into a creek to the east of the park.

If the issue causes significant cost increases, VonderHaar said the city may be able to take advantage of a recently announced program to increase the grant amount by as much as $100,000. The initiative is primarily designed to help municipalities deal with increased costs associated with inflation and VonderHaar said it is unknown if the state will approve an increase to cover increased costs resulting from the discovery of the spring.

CITY AUDIT

During a special meeting prior to Monday night’s regular meeting, the council voted to accept the annual audit completed by Scheffel Boyle, CPAs, Alton. Accountant Keith Brinkmann presented the audit, commending the city for living within its means and exercising outstanding oversight over the expenditure of public funds.

Justin VonderHaar of HMG Engineers reported that representatives of Illinois Environmental Protection Agency investigated the lagoon in February but rendered a final report only recently.

“To us, there’s more oversight here than we’d normally see in a small community,” Brinkmann said. “I applaud you for your oversight. To me, that’s the heart of the matter.”

He said the firm’s opinion letters do not cite any deficiencies and make no recommendations for improving accounting procedures.

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“We’d love to have other communities mirror you,” he said.

As expenses increase and revenues plateau, Brinkmann said it will become more difficult to balance expenditures with revenue. He praised the council for raising water rates in response to increases in cost rather than delaying such adjustments until increases would be oppressive.

Brinkmann’s 15-minute presentation did not include a summary of city finances. The 28-page audit document shows governmental revenues from taxes, fees, licenses and so forth in the amount of $745,168 during the fiscal year ending April 30, with expenditures of $511,348. The governmental activities line ended the year $233,819 in the black; coupled with the beginning balance, governmental activities ended the year with a positive balance of $1,720,707.

So-called proprietary funds—sewer and water, and trash collection—reported profits of $25,146 for the year and ended the year with $2,138,954 in the bank.

PARK DEVELOPMENT GRANT

Over the objection of Ald. Jim Tilashalski, the council authorized the Mayor and City Clerk to apply for a $600,000 grant on behalf of the Benld Sports Association from the Department of Natural Resources to subsidize development of the former site of Benld Elementary School as a recreational park. Current plans for the park include development of a walking path, playground equipment, a softball field, a baseball field and a football/soccer field. The deadline for the grant application is at the end of the month.

Tilashalski said 10 percent of the grant application evaluation is dependent on officials conducting public hearings on the project.

Mayor Kelly offered to call a special meeting for next week to review plans for the park but Tilashalski rejected the offer, apparently on the assumption a special meeting would not meet the definition of a public hearing.

If the grant application is successful, the Sports Association would be responsible for raising additional funds to build the park facilities.

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Brought to a vote, Ald. Saracco, Robinson, John Balzraine, and Lance Cooper voted in favor of the application. Tilashalski voted “no.”

CIVIC CENTER

Ald. Balzraine reported the Civic Center renovation, underwritten by former resident Rick DeStefane, is nearing completion and is expected to open to the public in mid-October.

On Balzraine’s recommendation, the council voted to spend $2,667 to scrub, clean and seal the center’s concrete floor, and $965 for a metal sign renaming the center as the DeStefane Event Center.

OTHER ACTION

In other action, the council:

  • Approved a food truck ordinance identical to an ordinance approved by the Gillespie City Council earlier this month, establishing a fee structure of $100 for four days of operation, plus $25 for each additional day.
  • Authorized City Attorney Rick Verticchio to develop an ordinance on manufactured homes which will include an increase in the fine for violations.
  • Agreed to accept the deed for derelict property at 106 North Main Street in lieu of pursuing legal action.
  • Set trick-or-tricking hours from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Oct. 30 and 31.
  • Reappointed Don Chapman, Cathy Barylske and Jeri Bayse to three-year terms on the Public Library Board of Trustees.

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School board deals with personnel issues during special meeting

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Stephanie Bray

Meeting in special session Monday night, members of the Community Unit School District 7 Board of Education accepted “with regrets” the resignation for purposes of retirement of Stephanie Bray, one of the district’s three technology integration specialists, effective June 4.

The board called a special session to deal with the apparently unexpected resignation before the board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting later this month. However, board members tabled action on approving a revised job description for the Student Information System/Data Integration Specialist position, pending further discussion.

The board also tabled action on posting the newly created vacancy and tabled posting a district-level secretary’s position.

In February of 2022, the board accepted “with regrets” Bray’s announcement of her retirement “no later than the end of the 2025-26 school year.” There was no indication of why Bray moved her retirement date up by two years.

On a motion by Weye Schmidt, seconded by Amanda Ross, the board voted unanimously to accept Bray’s resignation. The action followed a 50-minute executive session to discuss personnel issues behind closed doors. The public portion of the meeting lasted less than 10 minutes.

In other action, the board voted to renew the district’s One Room contract to offer a remotely taught Spanish class to fulfill the district’s foreign language requirement for the 2024-25 school year. This will be the second year an off-site teacher will teach foreign language at GHS, using remote communication technology. Supt. Shane Owsley said the district had no applications for the vacant teaching position last year. This year, an applicant from Brazil explored the possibility of teaching in Gillespie but ultimately accepted a tutoring position at Greenville University. Owsley said hiring the applicant could have become cumbersome because she was not yet certificated to teach high school Spanish. He said he recently changed the job description from Spanish to foreign language to expand the pool of potential applicants.

In other personnel action, the board approved the maternity leave request of Amber Allan, BenGil Elementary physical education teacher, effective Aug. 28 through Jan. 20.

In separate actions, the board accepted Nathan Henrichs resignation as Gillespie High School freshman football coach, posted the position as vacant, and appointed Henrichs as a varsity assistant football coach. The board also voted unanimously to appoint Alex Jasper as an assistant freshman football coach. The board unanimously accepted Wayne Ireland’s resignation as a volunteer assistant football coach, and voted unanimously to appoint Jarrod Herron and hire Trenton Cleveland as volunteer assistant football coaches.

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The board voted unanimously to hire Michael Rodriguez as a high school volunteer assistant women’s basketball coach.

On a motion by Schmidt, seconded by Kelli Vesper, the board hired Alexis Ollis as a head cook and kitchen staff member, pending documentation of certification and a background check. The board also Brittany Hughes as a district kitchen staff worker, pending documentation of certification and background check.

On a motion by Vesper, the board voted unanimously to post a vacancy for a one-on-one paraprofessional aide.

Board members voted unanimously to accept the resignation of Jessica Kelly as a middle school assistant track and field coach and voted unanimously to hire Jay Weber as the high school head track and field coach.

The regular monthly meeting of the board is set for 6 p.m., Monday, June 24, at the district’s administrative office.

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Americana festival set for July 4 at Benld Park

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Jess Barker, The Lodge Brothers, and The New Prairie Drifters are set to take the stage at Benld City Park on Thursday, July 4 as part of the Americana Festival.

The music festival intends to celebrate the birthday and spirit of America with thriving local culture of music, food, and art. It is scheduled to begin at 12 noon and end at 6 pm.

Food will be available for purchase from The Barracks American Table, a new Gillespie restaurant, and skincare products will be available from Nature’s Bliss, a Benld gift shop.

The park is located at 305 North Main Street in Benld. Admission is free.

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Macoupin County Fair underway until Sunday

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Rides, tents, food trucks, music, animals, and plenty of other offerings fill the grounds at the Macoupin County Fair for the 172nd year. The fair is held June 4 through June 9 at the Macoupin County Fairground north of Carlinville.

The oldest county fair in Illinois, the Macoupin County Fair welcomes thousands of guests to the area and unites agriculture, family, and community. The fair continues through Sunday with highlights every evening.

The fair also meets the needs of families on a budget, for just $10 per person you get parking and all-access to the carnival rides. The cost-friendly fun draws in visitors and locals who get to embrace the county’s namesakes.

Tracy Lawrence and Walker Montgomery are set to take the stage Thursday evening, June 6, at 7:30pm. Friday evening features the tractor and truck pull, and Saturday evening is the crowd-favorite demolition derby.

The fair opens every morning at 8am and closes at 12 midnight. For a full list of schedule of events or to pre-pay for entry, visit the fair’s website here.

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