What if they made a budget and nobody cared?
by Mike Kroll
The Zephyr, Galesburg
Galesburg city officials officially began the 2008 budget process at Lake Storey Pavilion on Monday night. City manager Dane Bragg and is top staff joined mayor Gary Smith and five of the seven city council members for what was described as a goal setting session. Aside from four members of the press a total of three Galesburg citizens came to enjoy the festivities and see their city officials brainstorm plans for next year. Bragg began the meeting by having community development director Roy Parkin lecture everyone on what constitutes a “goal” versus an “objective.” Then Bragg turned the meeting over to Smith and the council, inviting them to bring up any goal they had for the upcoming year.
While the word was never used, this was one of those classic opportunities for our elected officials to demonstrate the vision and leadership we entrusted in them at the polls. Alas, with but a few notable exceptions the council members did nothing but rehash old plans and long-standing complaints or reiterate the need to complete critical projects already identified and begun. It was like watching a gaggle of lethargic people stumbling aimlessly around in a totally dark room for two hours. The mayor should actually be pleased so few were present to witness the event.
To Bragg's credit he didn't immediately take over leadership of the meeting but rather attempted to force the aldermen to do their duty through his silence. The preceding city manager would have prepared his list of goals and objectives and spoon-fed it to the council to be rubber stamped. It wasn't until the tail end of the meeting when the council had expended its limited pool of ideas that they convinced Bragg to present his ideas.
As one might expect, the mayor focused principally on economic development. What was probably unexpected was his suggestion that the city council spend the time to reevaluate city spending on economic development. Do we spend enough or is more of a commitment needed? More importantly, are we wisely spending the economic development funds currently? Late in the meeting Smith broached a topic I have harped on in these pages for some time, how can we get people in this community who possess the resources and knowledge to startup entrepreneurial projects that can help build our area economy.
There is no doubt that finding a cost effective means toward successful economic development has to be an ongoing priority and this will not be accomplished merely by waiting for outsiders to arrive and rescue Galesburg. The mayors suggestion that we engage in a meaningful reevaluation of local economic development efforts was one of the better ideas that came out of Monday's meeting. The coming year would appear to offer an excellent opportunity to explore new economic development opportunities with the city's newly hired economic development director. We can only hope that his role will be much broader than just retail expansion.
No doubt creation of this position must be seen as a challenge to our friends at GREDA, but what's wrong with that? Let us begin a regional effort to nurture new LOCAL investment in job-creating enterprises that offer more than just blue-collar or retail jobs. Let us make Galesburg as great a place to live as we have been telling people it is and use quality of life and technical assistance to nurture creation of local white collar jobs serving corporations outside of Galesburg.
To that end we need to devote real effort and resources toward fixing those things that are currently broken in Galesburg. The council should set a goal of replacing the currently toothless rental property inspection program with a strong rental property licensing program. We need to force local slumlords into becoming responsible landlords or getting out of the business. By eliminating the many substandard, extremely low-rent apartments and rental homes we will simultaneously make Galesburg a more attractive community and reward responsible landlords for maintaining quality properties. This is a big and politically sensitive task but one that must be done if the Galesburg economy is to improve. While mandating better quality rental properties will bring higher rents that is the price we must pay. The presence of slumlords merely discourages responsible ownership of rental properties because they depress the housing market prices.
Since the vast majority of problem properties across this town are poorly maintained rental properties the above will go a long way toward improving the conditions of Galesburg neighborhoods. Let us accompany this with a targeted effort in a highly visible area to offer incentives to home ownership and rehabilitation for owner-occupied properties. New home construction just isn't going to happen until we can make Galesburg attractive enough to bring back middle-class families and financially-secure retirees. And when we encourage that new home construction let us not automatically presume that it can only be successful norther of Losey Street.
Alderman Mike Lummis' suggestion that the city begin promoting creation of a light rail system linking Galesburg with the Quad Cities, Peoria and even Bloomington isn't as far fetched as many think. With the flight of manufacturing jobs from Galesburg many of our neighbors already commute to these places daily and Galesburg can be promoted as a better place to live and raise your family even if you commute to work outside of town. Urbanites regularly spend more than an hours commuting to work in the big cities across this country so a 45 minute train or bus ride to and from work could offer an attractive solution that is less stressful on the employee, her pocketbook and the environment too.
Late in the meeting Bragg mentioned establishing a Main Street corridor bisecting the city from I-74 on the east to Route 34 on the west. Devote the time necessary to plan a responsible combination of commercial and residential use along what could become Galesburg premier boulevard and a showplace for visitors. Clean up not only these two city entrances but avoid the commercial planning nightmare that is Henderson Street. Systematically rezone properties along Main Street ahead of their redevelopment and implement building code and zoning changes that will make Main Street a safer, more successful and more attractive business corridor.
There is no question that we must get moving on the necessary improvements to our aging water system but this is now a matter of fiscal prioritization and and an iron-clad commitment by the city council to see the job through. The water system is one of the most critical and challenging services offered by the city and it has gone along far too long with little or no real oversight. The water division should be withdrawn from under the public works umbrella and truly operated as a stand-alone entity with the constant oversight of a water commission to oversee system priorities, rates, and a responsible capital plan. This is just too important to be handled directly by the council or as just another public works division.
There are many, many more things that could and should be discussed by the city council in a brainstorming session but the key is that the council accept and perform their duty as the elected leaders of Galesburg. It is up to the city council, not the city staff, to establish a vision and plan for the future of this community. Galesburg needs and deserves seven visionaries and a team captain who facilitates the planning process. Work out a plan and prioritize its component parts and then turn to your city staff to help implement that plan.