Stop the Presses — Recipe for Galesburg 2002

By Mike Kroll

Galesburg City Manager Gary Goddard and his staff have completed putting together the proposed budget for the 2002-2003 fiscal year. Copies of this budget have been distributed to City Council members who are scheduled to begin discussion in a 6pm work session on Monday, January 14th. With budgeted revenues totaling $36.2 million and anticipated expenditures of $35.4 million this budget is essentially balanced ($830,000 in the black) and represents an insignificant change from the current year’s budget.

This is essentially a status quo budget with few significant initiatives or changes in City services or operations. Most of the details of the budget do not merit much discussion as the majority of the city operations are well managed. There are however a few areas that our City Councilmembers should pay special attention to during budget discussions. Interestingly, none of these issues are really new, most have been discussed previously–but as of yet neither the City Council nor Goddard has really advocated meaningful changes.

One of the goals listed by City Clerk Anita Carlson is to "review the fee structure for various licenses and recommend possible changes to the City Council." Whereas the estimated revenues from such licenses and fees in the next fiscal year total $388,000 the vast majority come from only two of 13 budgetary line items: liquor licenses ($150,000) and wheel tax stickers ($195,000). The entire budget for the City Clerk’s office is only $255,750.

I can’t speak to recommended changes in the many other licenses but I would suggest that the current limit on the number of available liquor licenses be eliminated, as it is merely a protectionist measure for current license holders. The liquor license fee should be changed to reflect a percentage of the revenues generated by liquor sales rather than a flat rate. Such changes should result in either a substantial increase in revenue or a decrease in establishments selling alcohol–a no-lose proposition.

The existing wheel tax sticker fee of $10 per vehicle is both silly and unfair given the little effort invested in penalizing residents who fail to register their vehicles. I would suggest that by merely increasing this to $15 we would generate sufficient revenue to fund this entire office and a concerted effort to catch and penalize scofflaws with hefty penalties would make this a fairer system.

Under the title "Contracts & Subsidies" in the budget you find the City’s $75,000 annual payment to GREDA, $180,000 payment for Tourism, $3,500 subsidy for the Stearman Fly-in, $37,060 subsidy of Lakeside Water Park and $100,000 subsidy for the Orpheum Theatre.

It is still too early to determine whether or not GREDA is any more than EDC in a new acronym but the World Mineral announcement appears to signal that it is more than business as usual in a positive sense. Let us hope Eric Voyles and company continue to deliver real value rather than the smoke and mirror results we grew to despise from the EDC. As for the tourism money, I remain convinced that this amounts to little more than wishful thinking and free marketing of the Seminary Street shops. We must face the fact that the Galesburg economy will never be that impacted by tourism dollars without a real tourism draw.

Giving money to the Stearman Fly-in must be conditional on continuing efforts to make this into a real public event rather than simply an opportunity for a bunch of rich guys to fly into town for a week of partying. If the event is to remain largely a good ol’ boys club that is fine but the citizens of Galesburg should cease the subsidy.

Lakeside Water Park is perhaps one of this newspaper’s best "we told you so" examples ever. Please explain to me how this supposed enterprise fund has become such a financial albatross? Before it was constructed we said the design and operational plan made no financial sense and pointed to other area water parks that were successful to illustrate how it should have been done. Alas, city officials and our former Mayor were determined to create an "attraction" that wouldn’t attract the very teenagers it would need to prosper financially. If we are determined to keep dumping money into this black hole perhaps we should begin considering ways to fix it.

Speaking of financial black holes, this new budget document finally comes to grips with the myth of Bunker Links as an enterprise fund. Of course the suggested answer will undoubtedly be to begin openly budgeting a subsidy for the golf course rather than making operational changes that would enhance the revenue stream. To their credit the newly appointed Golf Commission has publicly recognized that the present fee structure at Bunker Links is too much of a bargain and are recommending some substantial fee adjustments. We should also consider contracting out for someone to operate food and drink concessions at the golf course and make the necessary changes that would result in a moneymaking driving range. Neither will happen of course, but I can dream can’t I?

The sagas of both Lakeside and Bunker Links illustrate a longstanding recommendation of mine that never seems to go anywhere, creation of a single Parks and Recreation Department wholly apart from both Community Development and Public Works. I envision a single entity responsible for both the facilities and programs and lead by someone who appreciates both the civic importance of a good park system and the very real revenue opportunities that certain aspects of such an organization could present. The existing organizational design makes little sense and is long overdue for a change.

Galesburg Police Chief John Schlaf has listed as one of his goals for the coming year to "re-write departmental rules and regulations." Considering the long list of bungled arrests, illegal searches, and unconstitutional interrogations that have become a continual embarrassment to our police department this past year this seems like a wonderful goal. However, rewriting department regulations alone will simply not be enough. The heavy-handed mentality of the GPD must be changed and a good place to start would be mandatory refresher training on the civil protections our Constitution guarantees all citizens in this country.

The biggest budgetary change in the Galesburg Fire Department is the proposed increase of two firefighters. From a safety standpoint for both this community as a whole and the other fire fighters in particular it should be a priority to get manning levels up to the point where all three stations always have a minimum complement of four fire fighters. Much has been made of the changing nature of fire calls in Galesburg. Today structure fires are fewer and emergency medical calls account for a huge proportion of the department’s activity.

With these additional fire fighters should also come additional small vehicles that can be sent on emergency medical calls where the full-size engines are expensive and cumbersome to use. These initial response vehicles should not only be equipped for rescue and extraction but also with sufficient fire fighting equipment for the large number of minor calls that we now send the large engines on.

Additionally, these extra fire fighters can be used to continue beefing up the inspections program for commercial, industrial and multi-family residential structures. The City Council should also put the teeth back into the rental properties inspection program that has become a joke. While there has been a vigorous enforcement effort put into the registration of rental units the inspection standards adopted by the City Council are insufficient to truly improve the safety of Galesburg’s apartments.

The budget includes $15,000 for remodeling of the space soon to be vacated by the Knox County Sheriff in the Public Safety Building. This is truly a mere token of the amount required to actually make effective use of the space now housing the County Jail. The time has come to acknowledge that a compatible reuse of this space by the County is highly unlikely. The City Council should excuse Knox County from the remaining years of its agreement to utilize the Public Safety Building and begin planning for City use of the entire structure.

Finally, one of the controversial issues that will likely get a lot of discussion during these work sessions concerns the water rate study. The present water rate system discounts water usage by large customers while disproportionately charging homeowners for their modest water usage. The consultant has suggested that the city adopt a uniform rate structure that would pass more of the costs on to the large users. This is exactly the approach that was advocated by this newspaper nearly a decade ago when changes to Galesburg’s water rates were last seriously being considered.

The recommendation is to phase in such a rate change over a three-year period. This would result in less of an immediate impact of large water customers who have underpaid for so long. I think it is important to separate other municipalities who purchase water from Galesburg from other large water users. It is important to consider the probable impact on any fee change on the small individual water users in Abingdon and East Galesburg (and soon Knoxville) as we propose changes to the rate structure.

It seems clear that there are plenty of "big picture" issues meriting the City Council’s attention during these budget work sessions. Let us hope that they don’t regress back into tinkering with the details simply because they are easier to understand and carry less political risk. The City Council can signal some important policy changes through this budget process or they can simply go through the motions as has happened so often in the not so distant past.