By JACK ANDERSON
For Rantoul Press
As we all know, water flows best downhill and in a straight line. Last fall it was observed the village of Rantoul was replacing a portion of storm sewer that once ran in a straight line with 163 more feet of pipes, some making 90 degree turns.
The obvious question was why? An investigation exposed what I would best describe as a series of poor decisions, poor practices and a lack of transparency.
On Feb. 9, 2016, the village board approved a design contract for the Broadmeadow Road drainage improvement project with the engineering firm of Burns & McDonnell. The combined engineering and construction for the entire project would eventually cost over $1 million.
On May 16, 2016, village trustee Chad Smith purchased two vacant residential lots on Quinlan Place in the Roessler Meadows subdivision for a total of $25,000, with the plan to construct a house in the middle of the two lots.
Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that within four days of Smith’s purchase he learned there was an existing storm sewer easement straddling his lots, and he could not build a house on top of the easement.
On behalf of Smith’s interest, on May 20, 2016, the village public works department contacted Burns & McDonnell by email, writing:
"…We have had a resident recently purchase lots 5 and 6, unaware of the easement that runs between them. This resident is planning on building a new house that straddles the lots. Needless to say this is problematic since the Broadmeadow storm sewer runs through it. The resident was in a state of panic when he found out about this. He just closed on the lots on 5/16/2016. We would like to assist by adjusting the storm sewer and moving it to the west side of lot 5. Let me know your thoughts…"
Using documents obtained through the FOIA, calculations showed to relocate the storm sewer around Smith’s lots would cost about an additional $39,000.
Remember,, Smith only paid $25,000 for the two lots.
Records also revealed that the village administrator, without seeking prior board concurrence nor officially notifying the board in writing, signed a change order on June 29, 2016, which included further engineering costs to the village to relocate a portion of the storm sewer on Smith’s behalf.
At the Sept. 6, 2016, village board study session meeting the board voted unanimously, which included trustee Smith, approving to place on the following week’s consent agenda the approval of the over $1 million in construction and engineering contracts for the Broadmeadow drainage project. Nowhere in these contracts is there specific mention that a portion of the storm sewer is being relocated to Smith’s benefit.
The contractor’s relocation of the storm sewer on Smith’s property began in October 2016 and was completed the following month in November.
A Jan. 23, 2017, FOIA request exposed that the village has no responsive records that the other six members of the village board were ever officially made aware in writing of the existence of the June 2016 change order. Nor that the September 2016 contracts they approved included designs and funding to pay for Smith’s storm sewer relocation.
Certainly the village board should have been informed the plans and funding they were approving were partially on behalf of a fellow trustee.
Best practices would dictate the village obtain a signed reimbursement agreement with Smith prior to beginning work and spending funds to his benefit. However, in response to the Jan. 23 FOIA, the village had no responsive documents concerning Smith’s reimburse to the village. Essentially, the village advanced the funding to design and complete the work without a written reimbursement agreement with Smith.
Although storm sewer relocation engineering plans had been drawn, funds allocated and construction work completed, there was no apparent paper trail leading back to the village board room. The absence of such a paper trail kept the public from being informed about what was occurring behind the scenes.
When taxpayer dollars are being spent to benefit an elected representative, even if temporarily, such a sensitive arrangement would demand total transparency so as to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Seven days following a Jan. 23 FOIA request, where no records previously existed, the village then created a letter dated Jan. 30 outlining a proposed agreement with
Smith for reimbursement. Similarly created was a proposed board agenda item, also dated Jan. 30, for approval of a reimbursement and loan payback agreement with
Smith. So documents sought which in some form should have already existed but didn’t, when requested, were then created.
The Jan. 30 unsigned reimbursement agreement letter with Smith pending board approval included a $12,973.22 loan with a 15-year loan payback period at a 2.91 percent interest rate with payments to begin July 2017. That’s about $26,000 short of estimates for the total relocation costs.
As a concerned taxpayer, I challenged the low construction reimbursement cost. Upon my request the village administrator paused presenting the reimbursement agreement with Smith to the board pending my meeting with village staff so they could explain their costing methodology.
After discussions with staff, the village revised their reimbursement by increasing it about $4,100 to a total $17,079.96. That’s still about $22,000 short.
Village public works officials explained they would not be recommending billing Smith for the additional $22,087.21 in realized costs for the storm sewer relocation because the village believes that it too benefited from a portion of the relocation in the form of increased hydraulic capacity.
Besides it was explained, the village might possibly sometime in the future choose to expand drainage capacity upstream of the storm sewer pipes installed to accommodate Smith.
In the end, the village staff is recommending the taxpayers finance a zero-down loan for 100 percent of the $17,079.96 in costs attributed to Smith. If the village board actually approves giving Smith a loan using tax dollars, then I wonder if such 15-year low interest village special loans are available to all residents.
Or is it just for the village’s elected officials? Smith needs to get a loan from a bank, not from the taxpayers.
Jack Anderson is a resident of Rantoul.