Burg's-eye view: The challenges facing Galesburg and its city council

by Mike Kroll

We are today closing in on the April 5th Consolidated election and once again we appear to be facing little more that a beauty contest. There has been little or no public discussion of the issues in the three contested races other than mayor aspirant Gary Smith's pledge that "jobs are my #1 priority!" Campaigning has been so low-key as to be nearly invisible, excepting the sprouting of yard signs. The casual visitor to Galesburg could hardly be faulted for failing to realize that an election was imminent but the voters and candidates alike need to consider just how important the next four years will be to this community.

The challenges facing Galesburg are striking but they are hardly new. If we are honest with ourselves the closure of Maytag and Butler, like those of National Seal, Briggs and numerous others before them are merely symptoms of a community that has been effectively rudderless for decades. Sure the loss of those jobs has created problems, or more accurately, exacerbated problems; but these are problems that can't really be fixed merely by replacing the lost jobs. The primary challenge facing the city is to have a realistic vision of what Galesburg needs/wants to be in five, ten or twenty years and the fortitude and good sense to take the necessary steps to achieve that vision. Galesburg needs leaders who can make tough, knowledgeable decisions even when they are unpopular or painful.

In the past Galesburg has hired outsiders to develop "comprehensive plans" that have been neither comprehensive nor heeded once delivered. One of the principle roles of the city council must be to conduct such planning on an on-going basis using city staff and local citizens and implement decisions in concert with those plans. Such a planning process is so important and encompasses everything from infrastructure to land use to economic development that the existing Community Development department should have its other duties striped away to focus it's efforts on such planning.

The community development director should be the city's economic development leader-- with close participation by both the mayor and city manager-- and the funding that is currently squandered on GREDA would be better spent in-house. The focus of this task needs to be broadened well beyond blue collar jobs and a real emphasis on developing a spectrum of new job opportunities. We need to abandon the myth of a big manufacturer coming to Galesburg's rescue and focus instead on diversifying the local economy with a range of small to mid-size businesses courted on the basis of their fit to Galesburg rather than by incentive packages. We also need to start by helping build local businesses rather than courting the Chinese whose most notorious characteristic is incredibly low wages. Jobs are not interchangeable just because that is how they are counted in the statistics. We must acknowledge that bringing low-wage, no benefit jobs to Galesburg accomplishes little, may even be counterproductive and is certainly unworthy of incentives.

Community development should also encompass marketing Galesburg as a community. Such marketing has to go beyond simply colorful brochures and maps to include realistic attention to the appearance of our town. There is much natural and man-made beauty in our town and we need to "shine it up" ans show it off. In the past there has been talk of beautifying the entrances to town and signs have been erected but much more needs to be done. We also need to encourage residents and business owners to take a bigger interest in the appearance of their properties. Rather than simply punishing property owners who fail to maintain their properties the city council needs to remove the excuses and reward those who correct problems.

A good start would be to expand the current twice per year unlimited pickup to monthly or bi-monthly service and bid this out separately from the existing garbage contract. The city council should also reconsider an over sized brush pickup program again by bidding the service out and separate from garbage. The establishment of a troop of community services volunteers combined with the use of judicial community service sentences would go a long way to litter and debris pickup and providing assistance to the sick or elderly that cannot easily maintain the exterior appearance of their property.

One issue that keeps reappearing whenever this discussion of community appearance is brought up concerns burning. There is absolutely no reason this or any future city council should reconsider permitting the burning of yard waste, even on a limited basis, in the city. There is no good reason to backslide on what may have been among the biggest policy accomplishments of the past decade.

A separate community services department can be created to oversee garbage collection, bus and handivan, animal control, inspections and special event management. Another long overdue change would be to remove Parks from Public Works and combine it with Recreation to create and new independent department run by a director and appointed board similar to the Library. This quasi-independent board would go a long way toward improving recreation in Galesburg while distancing the city council and the city manager from its regular management. This should eliminate the need for the city council to involve itself in problems with Bunker Links or Lakeside or most other park activities.

Given the size and importance of the Water Division we should also consider removing it also from Public Works and creating a board or commission to oversee that critical system on a consistent and realistic basis for much the same reasons. The engineering study to be conducted on the Oquawka pipeline this summer is but the tip of a much bigger iceberg with respect to the long unmet maintenance and upkeep of this critical city service. The water system today sits on the edge of potential disaster for lack of attention to these issues and an unwillingness to adjust the rate structure to properly fund its operation. There is little doubt that even without a catastrophe there will be need to substantially revise water rates, particularly for the largest users, to help cover the real cost of operating this system. By a long history of neglect the citizens of Galesburg today face the need to invest tens of millions into the water system over the next few years regardless of the local economic situation. These are hard choices and embarrassing questions that will need to be addressed.

Planned maintenance, extensions and upgrades of the city infrastructure needs to be a city council focus and realistically funded. While somewhat less critical maintenance of streets, sidewalks, storm sewers, street lighting and public parking lots have all been underfunded and or neglected in recent years. The thing about maintenance is that it isn't politically sexy or exciting, costly if properly conducted and an attractive way to cut costs when times are tight. But that attractiveness is misleading because interestingly enough it's much more costly to remedy problems created or exacerbated by neglected, postponed or inadequate maintenance. Not only does such maintenance (or lack of it) directly impact the livability of the community it also impacts on the attractiveness of the city to outsiders. Additionally, like so many budget shenanigans employed at the state and federal level such near-term "savings" merely place a bigger burden on future taxpayers.

While the reorganization proposed above should go along way toward correcting some of the longterm sacred cows of Galesburg politics this is an area the city council must address. For example, even as numerous other city departments took their budgetary lumps as finances became tight the police department has largely escaped the budgetary ax and even now at least one council member is pushing to add funds for a "pet" project of questionable value even in the chief's opinion. Presently the police department is unquestionably the most top heavy city department and perhaps the least accountable.

The city council needs to begin making better use of its meeting time by directing more time to discussion of policy and direction and leaving more of the day-to-day issues to the professional city staff or oversight boards. Galesburg currently has a long list of boards and commissions appointed by the mayor and charged with various duties. In many cases these boards currently serve little real purpose and hence are not taken seriously by their members. When boards regularly are unable to meet due to lack of a quorum the responsibility does not fall upon the absent members alone. Too many of the boards have no real mission (i.e. Transportation, Human Relations, Local Improvements) while others have allowed themselves to become comatose (e.g. Telecommunications) while yet others have literally too much on their plate (e.g. Planning).

The effective use of citizen volunteers can go a long way toward freeing up council members to direct operation of the city's "big picture" while simultaneously depoliticizing much of the discussion. The mayor and city council need to evaluate and redefine some of these boards and commissions. Serving the city in such a capacity needs to be attractive and appealing to citizens and their roles must be taken seriously by both commission members and the city council. In many other communities such boards and commissions are fertile training ground for future city council or mayor candidates and it is considered a coveted honor to be appointed.

What the voters have to look for are candidates who are unwilling to continue business as usual. People who will admit that things are broken and fixing them will require change. Candidates who are willing to invest of themselves in this city-- even to the extent of upsetting the status quo. We need a city council and mayor that will once again lead Galesburg rather than sit as the city manager's audience at council meetings. Even if a direction isn't exactly perfect we need to pick one and begin moving forward.