By JACK ANDERSON
For Rantoul Press
Previous articles and guest commentaries in the Press have detailed how village trustee Chad Smith purchased two vacant lots on Quinlan Place for $25,000 to build a 5,000-square-foot house, only to discover there was a storm sewer line straddling the lots.
The village then spent $39,000 to reroute the storm sewer line around Smith’s lots. Ultimately, after this matter was publically exposed, Smith must reimburse the village $17,079; the remaining $22,087 will be paid by the village.
Smith and Village Administrator Jeff Fiegenschuh admit mistakes were made. Examining all these mistakes reveals a common thread, serving to obscure from the other village board members and the public the expenditure of public funds to Smith’s benefit. Before being exposed, this lack of transparency spanned over eight months.
The most important question yet unanswered is why the bizarre decision to reroute the storm sewer was made. So place yourself in Smith’s shoes and ask yourself, "What would I have done?"
Let’s travel back to the beginning, when Smith learned of the storm sewer line running between his two newly purchased lots. There were vacant lots to the left and to the right of the lots Smith just purchased that were also for sale, opening the option of simply swapping lots.
Smith had the option to buy a third adjacent vacant lot and then sell one of the originally purchased lots on the opposite side. In the end, Smith would still own two adjacent lots upon which to build a house. By swapping lots he might pay as much as $5,000 more than he had originally planned. But this option does not involve the village nor public funds.
After approaching the village, Smith would have been told of an option that involved rerouting the storm sewer line around his two lots. If the village did the right thing they would had told Smith it could be done for an estimated minimum cost of about $25,000 but it could be more. As we now know, the final cost to reroute the storm sewer would be $39,000.
We know Smith chose to have the village reroute storm sewer. The confounding $39,000 question is, why was that option selected?
Contrary to village officials’ attempts to later frame this as just a series of mistakes, rerouting around Smith’s lots was not a simple honest mistake. Choosing to reroute the storm sewer was a conscious, deliberate and calculated action proposed by the village and agreed upon by Smith.
Why would Smith make such a decision void of basic financial common-sense? Why would the village be complicit in such folly? I believe the answer lies in the earlier-mentioned "mistakes" made by Smith and the village, where their actions served to obscure from the public what was really occurring.
What would you have done if you were paying the costs out of your own pocket? Would you have taken the more prudent logical path and swapped lots for $5,000? I have yet to find anybody who wouldn’t.
But what if other people’s (public) money is available to help you reroute the storm sewer around your property? The law requires public funds to be used only for public benefit, so where was the public benefit?
Smith and Fiegenschuh have spoken of the need to have new homes built to foster economic development. Was this an effort to help an individual build his house so he could pay future property taxes? If so, that’s not legal.
As if this odyssey wasn’t already surreal, now after $39,000 was spent moving the storm sewer around his lots to help Smith build a house, Smith has now decided not to build a house and he has placed the lots for sale. All that time, effort and money expended for nothing.
Again, the most important question yet unanswered is why the bizarre decision to reroute the storm sewer was made? It defies common-sense.
Is this the type of decisions we can expect from our elected board members and village administration as they usher Rantoul into the future?
I will once again ask that the village board at their next meeting initiate an independent third-party investigation into this matter by engaging the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office and/or the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s Office — investigating whether and which laws were violated and how much public funds were wasted. The public deserves answers, not excuses about "mistakes" that ring hollow and are insulting to our intelligence.
If the village board chooses not to initiate an independent third-party investigation, then the next step will be the circulation of a petition requesting the sheriff and state’s attorney’s offices to investigate the extent of any malfeasance, and if so the identify of those individuals directly responsible.
Transparency in government is paramount. The public trust hangs in the balance. The residents of Rantoul deserve the truth.
Jack Anderson is a resident of Rantoul.