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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 02:19 pm

Funding may be roadblock to

Cuts alone won’t be enough to fund $32 million a year

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It seems hardly fair to ask new businesses to locate and invest in Springfield if Springfield isn’t willing to invest in itself.

That’s the advice Jim Roth, a member of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s Quantum Growth Partnership, gave residents last week during a public hearing on infrastructure needs.

“A community that’s willing to keep its infrastructure where it needs to be is going to be more attractive to the private developer or business,” Roth said.

Springfield faces the same dilemma as other cities around the country — the cost of material and labor increases, while funding decreases — but the capital city has exacerbated the situation by ignoring failed infrastructure. Last spring the chamber group examined the city’s preservation, modernization and expansion needs, finding that Springfield should spend $32 million annually on street and sidewalk repairs instead of the $3.6 million it budgets.

Last week’s hearing, co-hosted by the chamber and a special subcommittee of the city council, was the final in a series of four convened in different areas of the city. Leaders met with residents at Lanphier High School to identify problem spots and to garner funding suggestions for a comprehensive, five-year plan.

“This is a process — we’re taking it to the streets,” said Ward 4 Ald. Frank Lesko, who attended the meeting with Ald. Mark Mahoney, Gail Simpson and Steve Dove. “It’s so we can go back and formulate what we need to do.”

John Keller, president of the Pillsbury Mills Neighborhood Association, told leaders that the roads in his area have been paved over so many times that they now sit higher than adjacent sidewalks. When it rains, he said, water floods directly from the streets into residents’ yards.

Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association representatives spoke about their area’s disappearing sidewalks, while other attendees discussed the poor condition of South Grand Avenue.

Residents spent a significant portion of the meeting brainstorming funding solutions. Some suggested money-saving measures such as cracking down on city employees who leave work trucks idling and cutting middle-management positions.

Others offered ideas for new revenue streams like implementing a conservation pricing structure that channels extra money into city coffers by charging more for water during summer months.

Steve Combs, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Association, suggested diverting a portion of collected fees from boarded-up houses to fund improvements. The city charges $100 for the first six months a home is boarded and $250 every three months thereafter. Combs, who previously criticized the city for not aggressively collecting fees, said the dividend could add up quickly. He has personally identified 400 dilapidated homes across the city, he said.

Aldermen even discussed reinstituting the city residency requirement for police and fire employees, so they could help pay the property taxes that fund their pensions.

Leaders steered clear of openly suggesting tax increases, but hinted that the issue would call for tough decisions. Mahoney, co-chair of the subcommittee, said cuts can be made to Mayor Tim Davlin’s proposed $117 million budget, but the city must consider more funding options to afford any significant improvements.

“The thing I want to point out is, even if you’ve cut to the bones, we’re still going to be short,” he explained. “We can’t cut [$32 million] out to pay for infrastructure.”

Now that the subcommittee has spoken with residents, Mahoney says, they’ll work with the public works department to develop a five-year plan that outlines when and how improvements will be made. The plan will coincide with the city’s fiscal year 2010 budget, which must be approved by March 1.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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