As with every election key issues emerge that grab the interest of community members more so than others. It is a good thing when the community engages in elections as it validates the importance of local government and their role in helping a community move forward. This year the topics of interest seem to fall into 4 main categories: River Front Development, Pensions, Road Repair (infrastructure), and Workforce Development. It is important for the community to have fact-based information when making decisions about which candidate will work best for the City. The amount of information behind these topics is incredible and one of the things that we, as community advocates, feel is imperative is to get out some of the information. Sterling Main Street and the Sauk Valley Area of Chamber work with the City of Sterling in various capacities to help address the needs, opportunities and challenges of the City. Janna Groharing and Kris Noble, Executive Directors, regularly attend city council meetings and monthly meetings with the City Manager and Mayor of Sterling to learn and exchange ideas.
DEVELOPMENT: When this topic is discussed it usually falls into the categories of riverfront development, downtown development and “all other” development. The riverfront development further is divided into three areas: Lawrence Brothers Property; Stanley/National property, and the 20+ acres that once housed Northwestern Steel and Wire Plant 1 at Wallace Street and Avenue B.
These three areas are all at very different stages of development. First, for community members who believe there is no development happening at the river front- there is! Visit the riverfront by Wallace Street and Avenue B. The goal is to make this part of the riverfront a recreational destination. The plan is to have this work done in phases and some has been started including planting grass, pouring sidewalk; putting up fencing, and moving the former Northwestern Steel & Wire building to the Meadowlands Business Park; a project done by the Greater Sterling Development Corp. (GSDC). There is a master plan for this area; with the City planning to partner with community groups and other private-sector entities to bring the plan to fruition. (SEE PHOTOS HERE)
The second area is the Lawrence Brothers Property. The City of Sterling has owned this property for about 9 years. Progress has been slow on this building; as the City has unsuccessfully applied for a U.S. Environmental Protection Brownsfield Assessment Grant every year since to 2011. While the City will continue to pursue EPA grants for the Lawrence Brothers site assessment and cleanup, it was decided in the spring 2018 to move forward with newly available funding to begin the assessment work. Until the assessment work is done, the City won’t have the information needed to even decide how the site can be reused and the building cannot be demolished until they know what contaminants are contained within it and how they will need to be remediated. The money for the ground samples came from federal Community Development Assistance Program (CDAP) revolving loan funds that were recently released to the City. The CDAP revolving loan fund for economic development was started in 1986, was administered locally and overseen by the State. The State ended its oversight and notified the City that the nearly $500,000 could be used without State and Federal restrictions. $125,000 is being set aside to jump-start the assessment work at the Lawrence site and $75,000 for the creation of a special events fund. The rest of the money is being used to create a local revolving loan fund for business development. While the City will be able to get the process started, officials will continue to seek help from the EPA.
The third area is the Stanley/National property, which includes over 14 buildings. The City of Sterling does not yet own this property, but there is a donation agreement between Stanley Black & Decker and the City that calls for the company to clean up the property below the ground, while the city handles whatever might be in the building. When the EPA approves Stanley’s part of the cleanup, the property will be turned over to the city. Until the City has control of the property and Stanley’s portion of the clean up work has been completed, the city’s hands are tied to as to any redevelopment of the site beyond brainstorming ideas for use and conceptual planning.
In the discussion of development; the term “TIF Districts” often comes up; yet most people have very little understanding of how TIF districts work and how the money can be used. TIF is Tax Increment Finance. Tax increment is the difference between the amount of property tax that was generated before the TIF district was created and after the TIF district was created. The base property tax continues to be distributed to all other taxing jurisdictions just as before. Only property tax generated by the incremental increase in the value of these properties after the TIF is created are available for use by the TIF District. TIF revenues can only be used for very specific things and within the actual TIF district. There are currently 4 existing TIF districts in Sterling: Central Business District West TIF; Rock River TIF; Lincolnway-Lynn TIF; and Central Business District East. TIF funds cannot be redirected to other areas of the City.
FIRE AND POLICE PENSIONS: The fact is that the City does not set pension benefits. These are set by State Statute in Illinois. The discussion is not about the Pensions, but rather how payment of these pensions is impacting almost every municipality in the State of Illinois due to a decision that was made at the 1970 Constitutional Convention. In 2018, the cost of the contribution to the Police and Fire Pensions was just over $2.5 million dollars. To give the reader a frame of reference; that cost was $200,000 in 2001. Municipalities are obligated to pay these rates, as the law is to have pensions 90% funded by the year 2040. The only way in which a City can reduce or at least slow the growth is one of three options: having higher investment returns; a drop in the number of retirees’ collecting pensions (deaths); or reducing the current staffing in fire and/or police to reduce future liabilities. It is important to understand the role the pension liability impacts how Sterling, or any municipality develops its budget. For the current budget year the City has opted to follow the recommendation of its actuaries as to the funding level needed to meet its pension obligations. While the recommendation is above the statutory minimum level, there is a small decrease in the tax rate; due to the increase in assessed values of all property in Sterling, many property owners will see a net reduction in the City’s tax amount.
INFRASTRUCTURE AND ROAD REPAIRS is always a contentious topic. With the passage of the local options sales taxes in recent years, approximately $1 million dollars is spent each year on street improvements, including bridges, curb, gutter and sidewalks; and another million is spent on stormwater improvements. At a recent city council meeting, a study session was held which outlined how street improvements are chosen from year to year. The selections are made based on a rating system supplemented by input from the City’s engineers and public works staff. The City frequently reviews the priority list and makes adjustments each spring as the winter weather can greatly impact the roads from year to year. The City also works with area utility companies to try and do work concurrently as a means of cost savings and to prevent extended or repeated road closures. There are over 100 centerline miles of streets in Sterling to be maintained. Adding to the mix is that several of the main roads in Sterling are State Routes. While the City is able to fill potholes and take care of other minimal maintenance items, the Illinois Department of Transportation is responsible for major repairs and rebuilding of those main arteries. While selecting the roads to be repaired/rebuilt each year it is not a perfect process, those decisions are made with the best information available at the time, with fiscal responsibility at the forefront – where can we get the most bang for our buck and have the greatest impact. Decisions are not made on who complains the loudest, or the most.
WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT is a topic discussed throughout the chamber on a weekly; sometimes daily basis. The focus of the discussion is not lack of jobs; as there are plenty of jobs available in the Sauk Valley. The focus of the discussion is on the lack of applicants for certain jobs and the need for candidates with critical essential skills; also referred to as soft skills. The Chamber works with employers to track what jobs are available, skill set needed, education required, and pay rates. The Sauk Valley area has jobs available in many sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, insurance and banking, health care and education. These positions range from entry level; minimum wage to those needing advanced degrees and high levels of experience- as well as mid-level positions. For example – 5 local employers are currently looking to hire a total of 145 employees with pay ranging from $12.00/hour to over $100,000.00. The challenge is finding qualified employees and the workforce development discussions need to be focusing on how to bridge the gap between education and employers/business in better preparing students for careers. We need to work together to let our youth know the career pathways that are available in the Sauk Valley and what skill set and level of education is needed to obtain these careers. Many jobs today do not necessarily require a 4-year college education, but rather a credential, or level of technical education. We as a community need to work to facilitate discussion between our school systems and local businesses to develop a talent pipeline and allow students the opportunity to engage with employers.
In addition, the Chamber and Main Street, along with the City and other community partners & volunteers, are actively looking at the quality of life issues of the area. In addition to the great schools, parks and healthcare opportunities available, what other community features are needed to help attract and retain the additional workforce needed to Sterling. While attracting additional manufacturers or other large employers to the area is always desirable, one of the attractors for a business to any community is the availability of a quality workforce.