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Joliet budget concerns abound

Library improvements, body cameras, tax hikes, deficit on the table

There are a lot of ifs in the proposed Joliet budget for 2020.

The downtown main branch of the Joliet Public Library will be renovated and modernized if the City Council approves a $6.5 million bond issue.

The city fleet of street sweepers, snowplows and other vehicles will be updated if a 3-cent increase in the Joliet gas tax is approved.

Police officers will get body cameras if the expense of $650,000 is not delayed a year.

The city will end 2019 with an
$11 million deficit if the finance department numbers are on target this year.

The proposed budget was presented last week to the council, which ended its first number-crunching session with more questions than answers.

Library advocates are hoping the council will OK the $6.5 million bond issue now in the budget for a remodeling of the interior of the library.

“This will be an indelible part of your legacy,” library Executive Director Megan Millen told the council at its first budget meeting Monday. “This council will be remembered for investing in Joliet’s future.”

Millen characterized the cost of the bond issue to taxpayers as “less than a can of pop a month” at $8 a year.

However, council members expressed concern about adding that to other costs in the budget.

“We’re already looking at $8 per household per year,” council member Jan Quillman said. “There are quite a bit of other things we’re going to raise in this budget.”

Some other increases are:

• The hike in the gas tax from 1 cent now to 4 cents

• An increase in the hotel tax from a rate of 7% now to 10%

• Higher fees from building permits, which would go from $6.25 per $1,000 of value now to $10 per $1,000

• A new fee for contractors, who would pay $200 to register with the city and $150 for renewals

Mayor Bob O’Dekirk objected to the assortment of tax and fee increases, saying they should have been vetted through City Council committees first.

“These are policy decisions that need to be made,” O’Dekirk said. “Don’t just put it in the budget and try to jam it through.”

The mayor criticized interim City Manager Steve Jones for “putting the cart before the horse,” suggesting resistance to the proposed budget.

However, if any changes are going to be made, nothing was proposed at the first budget meeting.

The council has one other budget workshop meeting scheduled Dec. 11 and is likely to vote on the budget at its last scheduled meeting Dec. 17.

The council at times has discussed some of the issues it faces in the budget, including the proposed hike in the gas tax to fund a replacement program for city vehicles.

Jones defended the budget proposal, saying, “It’s news to me that somehow major budget issues should be done at the committee level. This is the forum.”

Among the concerns to decide on is whether to keep $650,000 for police body cameras in the 2020 budget.

Police Chief Al Roechner said use of body cameras will have to wait until police vehicles are fully equipped, and he suggested the expenditure could be put off a year.

“It’s not going to happen as fast as a lot of people would want it to because of the in-car process,” Roechner told the council.

Meanwhile, council member Larry Hug asked staff for an analysis of city deficit projections in past years, saying that some have turned into surpluses when the accounting was completed.

An $11 million budget has been projected for the end of 2019, and Joliet ended 2018 with a $2 million deficit.

The city counts on reserve funds to finance deficits.

Even with a $300,000 deficit projected for 2020, Joliet expects to have $41.1 million in reserve funds available, which amounts to 21.3% of city operating expenditures.

Finance Director James Ghedotte noted the city’s goal is to have reserves at 20% of operating expenditures, and “this will bring us to the edge of our goal.”

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