Time To Lock Down on Joliet Budget Talks

Ever since last April’s elections, I’ve been waiting for some blockbuster news to come out of City Hall in downtown Joliet. Now it’s late July, and though the outside temperature has been in the 90s, things are mighty cool in the city’s governmental chambers. So cool, in fact, one might think all’s well in the land of casinos, racetracks, and intermodal shipping container transfer centers.

But this deafening silence from Joliet’s leadership worries me a tad. I can’t help but wonder what we’ve been doing about that teensy little $27 million budget deficit projection for 2012.

Sure, there’s been some encouraging news from other quarters. Just last week Joliet scored a $820,000 grant from the Illinois EPA for upgrading its sewage infrastructure in order to significantly reduce the amount of untreated waste we routinely dump into the Des Plaines River. As an enthusiastic proponent of minimizing combined sewage overflow events, I’m sincerely impressed.

Also laudable is State Senator Wilhelmi’s recent tour of the Joliet Correctional Facility with a bevy of high-ranking state officials, an effort to underscore the need for preserving one of Joliet’s key historical and architectural assets. It’s possible to imagine Joliet someday making some tourism industry hay, Alcatraz-style, from its uneasy international reputation as a prison town.

The old Joliet Prison, shuttered since 2002 (photo courtesy of Joliet Herald-News)

There’s only one little hitch: raising the tens of millions necessary to secure and restore the monumental but crumbling limestone structure. By comparison, breaking out of jail is child’s play.

The subject of money leads me back to that $27 million deficit looming in front of us.

Again, it’s been almost four months since the April election. Our fiscal clock is ticking very loudly. Where is the budget crisis mitigation plan from our City Council? What is Mayor Giarrante doing to lead this critical effort?

I have a couple of friendly suggestions for City Manager Tom Thanas, whose job surely must be one of the most stressful in Will County. First, reassign the brilliant technocrat who wrote that blockbuster EPA wastewater grant to plugging the leaks in the city’s budget, which surely could use some re-engineering.

Secondly, get in touch with Senator Wilhelmi and see if you can hold a special budget meeting in the old Joliet Prison, where the peeling paint, rusting cell bars, and weed-filled exercise yards are evocative symbols of neglect and decay — and a grim foreshadowing of the city’s future if we cannot put our fiscal house in order.

Perhaps such a setting will impart the proper sense of seriousness and urgency the situation demands. And if some of Joliet’s well-compensated police officers could patrol the grounds to make sure that no Councilman or Councilwoman escapes until an initial plan is hammered out, all the better.

This column was written as an op-ed piece for the Joliet Herald-News‘ 29 July 2011 edition and published as “When Will Joliet Officials Deal with $27 Million Deficit?“. After my column’s deadline last week, HN reporter Bob Okon wrote on July 27th that the Joliet City Council had again rescheduled its summer budget meeting for Monday, August 1st, which is a regularly-scheduled “pre-council” meeting that has a public comment period scheduled at the end. Read HN reporter Cindy Cain’s coverage of that meeting, which announced that the projected deficit for 2012 isnow $23 million and floats various possibilities for reducing the city’s expenditures.

The Council’s regular meetings are on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays of each month at 6:30pm. For more information, check the City of Joliet’s website.

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