City of Monmouth getting back on track

By Mike Kroll

Galesburg is facing hard times right now. After seven or eight years of relative prosperity the Galesburg City Council and City Manager are rediscovering fiscal constraints this budget year. Contrast that to the seemingly never-ending fiscal nightmare that has plagued nearby Monmouth for nearly two decades. One key difference is that Monmouth Mayor Jack Reitman and City Administrator Shannon Thompson are cautiously optimistic despite a series of near-term crises far exceeding the challenges facing Galesburg.

"We have been preparing our new city budget and I believe it meets our obligations to the citizens of Monmouth while still be financially responsible," proudly explained Thompson from her City Hall office Monday. "Sure money is tight and we are facing some very big capital expenses for water and sewer but financially I’d have to say Monmouth condition is stable right now."

Added Reitman, "these huge expenses for water and sewer upgrades are the result of years and years of neglect plus regulatory mandates. No small city could have absorbed such expenses but this City Council and our staff have done a really good job of overseeing city expenditures and we have held the line on the City’s share of property taxes. Our council viewpoint has been to focus on user fees whenever possible and while nearly everybody else raised theirs we have actually lowered our property tax levy."

The Monmouth City Council has voted to raise a number of fees including sharply higher water rates and the institution of a garbage collection fee. The Illinois EPA mandated improvements in the Monmouth water system to reduce levels of radium is a huge capital expense; but even without the new ion exchange treatment system the aging water distribution system needed millions of dollars of repairs and upgrades. Like hundreds of communities across Illinois Monmouth has until December 8 to meet the IEPA standard for radium in the drinking water, a deadline the City acknowledges they will not meet.

Reitman said that Monmouth City officials met two weeks ago with IEPA officials in Springfield to discuss progress on the water project. "We told them that it just wasn’t possible for us to meet the December deadline," said Public Works Director Andy Jackson. "While they cannot legally give us an extension on that deadline they understood when I told them we wouldn’t be ready. I estimated an additional 120 days or so as we reported on our progress to date. One thing we were very pleased about is that our pilot of the new treatment system exceeded out expectations in reducing the radium. We are totally confident that the ion exchange system will work."

Although Monmouth explored a number of possible options besides ion exchange the City is now irrevocably committed to that course of action according to Reitman and Thompson. When it was mentioned that some people in Monmouth want to revisit the notion of purchasing Galesburg water instead Reitman was emphatic, "The council has made their decision."

Much is still not known about the necessary changes for the water system. "A lot of design decisions still remain to be determined," said Jackson. "Our pilot simply used a water softener to demonstrate that ion exchange will not only reduce radium but iron as well in Monmouth’s drinking water. What it won’t do is reduce the high sulfur content of our water and hence the taste and odor issues. I do have hope that simply processing the water will result in some improvement in the taste and smell of our drinking water but I have never been dissatisfied with Monmouth water." Added Thompson, "I guess it’s just what you’re used to, isn’t it?"

According to Jackson there is some good news with Monmouth’s sewer infrastructure; the treatment plants themselves. "Both wastewater plants are operating well within EPA guidelines for both capacity and water output quality. The real problem is with the sewers themselves. Everything in the system is pretty old but the plant and lagoons are working all right. We began the process of separating our sanitary and storm sewers a few years ago and we expect to complete as much of that as seems reasonable by the end of this year. At that time we should have the systems 75 percent separated with most of the combined sewers in the downtown area."

"The biggest problem we face is that lots of the sewers are in tough spots to replace. In some cases we will need to look at relining the existing sewer pipe in place but that process is much more expensive than replacement. We also have to rely on outside contractors for more of the sewer work as the city doesn’t own all the necessary excavation equipment to do the work ourselves. Most sewer pipe is deeper than we can handle and the City can’t cost justify the purchase of an excavator."

The age of Monmouth’s water and sewer infrastructure is a problem. Most of the main sewer plant dates back to 1925 according to Jackson and despite maintenance and upgrades it will eventually need replacement. Monmouth officials are proud of the savings they have realized by using the Public Works crews to do much of their water main work and since they contracted with EMC to run Public Works the staff size has been cut nearly in half. Like most municipal budgets, salaries account for the bulk of Monmouth’s annual operating expenditures when capital projects are taken out of the mix.

"I keep telling staff that it is our job to see that the citizens of Monmouth recognize tangible results for the fees and tax dollars they spend," explained Thompson. "We have to work smarter and demonstrate to our citizens that they receive great value for their dollar from the City. My job is to get the citizens of Monmouth the best bang for their buck while sensibly meeting the many capital expense challenges that we face. We have worked hard to hold the line on operational expenses while improving services whenever possible."

"We want Monmouth to be a more and more affordable and attractive place to live," emphasizes Reitman. "We have a good quality of life here and we have every intention of growing this community. The council is committed to keeping property taxes as low as possible."

Nearly three years ago Monmouth moved its City Offices to the current location and everyone has been very pleased by the extra space and accessibility afforded. It was nearly the same time that Monmouth hired Thompson as City Administrator. Thompson is a somewhat unusual case for this position. While most city administrators or city managers have no familiarity with the communities they manage prior to taking the job Monmouth was Thompson’s home since 1992.

Born in Ottumwa, Iowa she first lived in this area when her family moved to Columbia Heights near Knoxville while Thompson was in high school. Following college she and her husband, a conductor for the Union Pacific railroad, moved to Monmouth and have raised their family there. Her two sons welcomed a baby sister nearly 18 months ago. "As you can see I had a vested interest in this community even when I interviewed for the job and I hope to stay here for years to come," noted Thompson.

As a city administrator rather than a city manager Thompson works closely with Mayor Reitman. While the duties of a city manager are pretty well spelled out in state statute a city administrator’s duties are whatever their City Council assigns. What may seem to be a subtle difference doesn’t turn out to be in practice. The Monmouth City Council is much more hands on than in Galesburg for instance and while Thompson’s advice is sought most Monmouth policy decisions originate with the City Council.

"I know that people in my line of work aren’t supposed to stay in one place for any length of time but I hope to be the exception to that rule. Monmouth is home for me and my family and that inspires me to look further down the road as we run the day-to-day affairs of this city."