From solar panels to salaries, it was a long, and sometimes contentious morning for members of the Montgomery County Board, who held their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday morning, April 10, at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro.
After reading a letter of resignation from District 3 board member Jay Martin, the board unanimously appointed Donna Yeske of Witt to take his seat. Martin, who was absent from the meeting, wrote that it was his privilege to serve the residents of his district and Montgomery County. Yeske was administered the official oath of office by Montgomery County Clerk Sandy Leitheiser and seated on the board.
In addition, the board unanimously appointed Martin to serve as county treasurer, replacing longtime official Ron Jenkins, who died in March. Martin will be sworn into office at a later date.
Board member Glenn Bishop led the Pledge of Allegiance, and the board unanimously approved the monthly mileage and per diem reports, as well as the minutes from the previous meeting and the consent agenda.
Board member Earlene Robinson reported that the 708 Board received seven applications for new funding this year, including two from local school districts. She said they will not be awarding funding just yet to spend more time reviewing the applications for payments in November and December. Robinson added that the Montgomery County Health Department would forgo its final fourth quarter payment of $62,875 because they did not need it. She added they awarded UCAN (United Child Advocacy Network) an additional $25,000 because they felt there was such a strong need for that program in this area.
In CEFS news, Robinson said the county was helping more than 700 LIHEAP applications for heating assistance this winter and 70 customers with reconnect assistance.
Dr. Bob Mulch reminded the board that the annual meeting of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation will be Thursday evening at 6 p.m. at the Litchfield Community Center.
In Senior Citizens news, Ron Deabenderfer said there are problems with potholes in the parking lot at the senior center, but the mayor in Taylor Springs was assisting in that matter.
During the Coordinating Committee report, Chairman Evan Young offered a resolution to designate April as Autism Awareness Month in Montgomery County. Leitheiser read the proclamation, noting one in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism.
Lynn Sellers of The Autism Support Connection (TASC) passed out puzzle piece pins to all board members and thanked them for their support.
"Our kids and young adults are very valuable to this community and can provide a lot to our community given the services they need and an opportunity to find their place," Sellers said.
Bill Draper, who serves as chairman of TASC, talked about the mission of the organization and thanked the county for its continued support.
Economic Development Committee Chairman Glenn Savage said he had been to visit the Green Diamond Bike Trail and would be continuing to work with the Waggoner mayor on the project.
After much discussion, the board would eventually pass the commercial solar farm ordinance in unincorporated areas of the county, which has been worked on for several months. Savage presented the ordinance in March, giving board members 30 days to review it, and said he hadn't heard from any board members about it. This ordinance does not affect private residential individual units or panels.
Board member Mark Hughes offered an amendment to the ordinance, asking the board to consider changing the requirement that the solar farm be 500 feet from any residence to zero feet. Deabenderfer said they discussed that part of the ordinance in committee, but selected 500 feet because it was recommended by the county's Planning Commission. He said there is a waiver in the ordinance that the homeowner can sign bringing the project to less than 500 feet.
Toni McDonough, who serves on the Planning Commission, said they chose 500 feet because that's what airports use for glare, but that also the solar farm can lead to a devaluation of neighboring property.
Board member Megan Beeler asked about the setback from a property line, which is also included in the ordinance as 30 feet from any property line or 60 feet from a right of way, like a road.
Hughes said he felt like it wasn't the county's place to tell people what they could do with their property. Board member Glenn Bishop echoed those sentiments, saying he felt 500 feet was too much, and that residences were not the same as airports.
Young said he felt the county needed to protect homeowners, especially since the ordinance did not have a very high permit fee. He added that the solar farm company could then compensate the homeowner if they chose to do so.
Discussion continued, and Hughes said he didn't want to dampen economic development efforts in Montgomery County. Hughes sited that Christian County does not have a 500-foot setback from residences, which could encourage a company looking at central Illinois to go there instead.
Young said that Christian County is one of the few counties not to have such a setback in this area.
The vote for Hughes' amendment failed 17-4, with Dillon Clark, Mike Plunkett and Glenn Bishop also voting yes.
Hughes then offered another amendment to change the 500-foot setback to 250 feet. Board member Jeremy Jones said he felt that was much better. Deabenderfer said he felt an amendment wasn't needed at all, as it would be covered by the waiver.
Resident Bill Schroeder, who also serves on the Planning Commission, said they were trying to protect the property value of local residents.
"If what you do on your property devalues my property, then that's not fair," he said. "We have to protect the people that live here."
"I'm not going to tell someone what they can or can't do on their own property," Hughes said. "Especially if it doesn't hurt anyone."
Schroeder said he felt the ordinance was covered well and that there was no need to edit it.
Beeler said she felt the Planning Commission had months and months invested in it, and the Planning Commission includes experts in the field of engineering, agriculture and soil and water conservation. She said she supported their efforts because they were the experts.
Jones said he felt that 250 feet was fair and that it was healthy to have a little barrier.
Board member Mike Plunkett said he voted yes to the first amendment, even though he respected the Planning Commission, because he felt the 500-foot setback from residences would be unfair, as it's hard to control something not on one's own property. He agreed with a setback from property lines and roads.
Board member Dillon Clark said he felt the county needed to support economic development.
"Right now, Montgomery County is dying," Clark said. "Everything close to the interstate is okay, but anything that can help make us money, I'm for it."
County Engineer Cody Greenwood asked if anyone had talked to property owners that have been affected by solar farms. Board member Bill Bergen asked how many landowners would be affected, and Bishop said it would be limited as to what pieces of land could be eligible to be solar farms. It was estimated to be less than 100 residents that might be affected.
Board member Kirby Furness asked if they passed the ordinance if it could be changed in five years if they needed to, and Young said they could change it at any time.
The vote on the second amendment would also fail, this time 15-6, with Mulch and Jones joining those voting in favor of the amendment.
Before the vote on the original ordinance, Plunkett asked about how much it will cost companies for decommissioning, and McDonough said it would vary by property, but that it wouldn't all have to be paid up front. The ordinance would eventually pass 20-1, with Hughes as the lone dissenting vote.
In other economic development updates, Young said the Planning Commission was discussing ideas for tax incentives to homeowners who make improvements to their properties. Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Valerie Belusko invited local residents to join their meetings and help share ideas to make the county a beautiful place to live.
In other MCEDC news, Savage invited the board to this year's CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) trade show on Tuesday, May 8, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln Land Community College in Litchfield. Belusko added they would be impressed by this year's crop of student businesses, and encouraged the board to come and support the students' efforts.
"We need to show them that we support what they are trying to do and that we want them back here," she said.
In addition, Belusko added they would be announcing next year's class of students at the trade show as well.
The board unanimously approved a budget for IllinoiSouth Tourism, which is paid for from the hotel and motel tax. A percentage of that tax also goes to the MCEDC for Belusko's work in tourism.
In a final item, Savage welcomed new board member Donna Yeske to the Economic Development Committee, noting that Glenn Bishop would now move to the Finance Committee.
It was a long agenda for the Finance Committee Tuesday morning, with lots of discussion on the approval of the power plant assessment and salaries for elected officials.
Up first, Finance Committee Chairman Megan Beeler introduced Amanda Cole, who serves as the unit director for the University of Illinois Extension. The board unanimously approved the Extension's annual levy request of $154,925, which has not changed for the past several years.
Cole introduced Erin Kistner, an eight-year member of the Starr Shooters 4-H Club, who talked about the importance of the program and the Extension services in this area.
"For more than 100 years, 4-H has helped youth belong, lead and serve others," Kistner said in her presentation to the board.
More than 200 county youth participate in the 4-H program in Montgomery County.
After Kistner's presentation, Beeler introduced Rick Gratza of KEB (Kerber, Eck and Braeckel), who provided this year's audit report for the year ending Nov. 30, 2017. Gratza said the firm used three auditing standards and offered an unmodified audit, which is the best opinion they provide. He said they found no complaints on internal controls of the county's finances, and offered just two small suggestions to improve it.
Gratza suggested amending the budget when funds are over on their allotted amounts each year and also creating an accounting procedural manual for employees. Deabenderfer asked if they had a template the county could use, and Gratza said that all manuals are unique, but they could offer a template as a starting point.
This year, Gratza said they looked at the county's WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which also received a top unmodified opinion.
Gratza said the county complied with all requirements during the audit process. This year's audit showed a $1.1 million increase in revenue, which included nearly $700,000 for the newly formed 708 Board, as well as an increase in fees for recorded documents. The county also showed a decrease of $1.1 million in expenses, which included $467,000 less in health insurance (due to paying 13 months the previous audit and only 11 months this audit).
Beeler thanked KEB for their work on the audit, and encouraged all board members to read it thoroughly before voting on its approval at the May meeting.
Up next, Beeler presented the agreement prepared by the Forrestal Group on a four-year assessment agreement for the Coffeen power plant. Beeler said that they have been working on it for months, and that the negotiating team is satisfied.
Previously, the county arranged a ten-year agreement with the power plant, assessing the property at $54 million.
Beeler said this time, Dynegy, who operates the Coffeen power plant, did not want to negotiate an EAV (equalized assessed value), but rather a tax bill for each of the next four years. Beeler said the tax bill drops substantially the first year, and then has a smaller drop each of the subsequent years.
Although they did not negotiate EAV, the agreement assesses the power plant at roughly $32 million, which accounts for the drop from the previous assessed value of $54 million. The power plant will also provide a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to the Hillsboro School District, which is the largest of the taxing bodies to take a hit, to make up for some of the financial loss. Beeler said the school district has also been very involved in the negotiating process the entire time. In addition, the district will get additional state aid, as the district's EAV drops.
"This is a favorable position for us to be in," Beeler told the board. "We could have come away much worse."
Mulch asked about the current property taxes they pay to a variety of taxing bodies in Montgomery County, which was $3.8 million, making them the largest taxpayer in Montgomery County.
Deabenderfer asked what would happen if the plant closed, and Beeler said the contract would be null and void. She said the contract also changes if one of the power plant's stacks is not in operation, as the assessment is based on the plant's productivity.
Young said the initial offer provided by the power company was assessing the plant at just $16 million.
Beeler said the consulting firm they used was very pleased with the outcome of the assessment, and felt the county came out favorably. She added that the county wants to continue to be a good neighbor to Dynegy, who is an excellent employer in this area.
The board unanimously conveyed two deeds, one in Witt Township to Timothy J. Brumberlow and one in Nokomis Township to Daniel H. Francis.
In another rather lengthy discussion, the board approved a salary increase for the offices of county treasurer, sheriff and county clerk and recorder, which all must be set 180 days prior seating the elected officials in December.
Beeler offered some background that in 2016, they did not give a raise to the coroner's position before that election. Facing dire financial straits, Beeler offered a 10 percent cut to the coroner's salary since there would be someone new in the position. That motion failed, and with no other action, the coroner's salary remained the same for four years.
The Finance Committee made the motion to increase the salary of those three elected positions $.25 per hour or $520 a year for each of the next four years. Beeler said the coroner's salary cannot be set for two more years. She added that the board usually sets the circuit clerk's salary at this time, but Circuit Clerk Holly Lemons had come to them and voluntarily offered to take a two-year salary freeze. She said she hoped the board would remember that when negotiating contracts with her employees.
Deabenderfer asked how the county compared with other counties in terms of salary, and Beeler said it varied, but was typically higher in counties of this size. The salaries were 6 or 7 percent higher than that of the state average.
Beeler offered an amendment to the original motion, freezing the salaries of the treasurer and sheriff positions (since they will be new this year), and then offering them a raise the final two years, when they could give the coroner a raise at the same time. Bishop said the committee discussed that possibility at its meeting, but it was rejected. Beeler said they discussed a lot of options. Her amendment did not include the county clerk and recorder's raise, since that would not be a new person in that position.
Board member Chuck Graden said he disagreed since both of these positions were vital to the county. He felt they should get a raise every year.
Beeler said this particular motion for her wasn't about the money, but about fairness to the coroner, who did not get a raise when he took office.
Graden said that it was a small amount they were talking about, $520 per year per employee, and Beeler said the county still has to be careful not to continue to spend.
Board member Bill Bergen said he agreed with Graden and that if the employees get a raise that the elected officials should get one too. Beeler said they have not yet set raises for non-union employees.
Beeler's amendment for a two-year freeze would ultimately fail 11-10. Voting with Beeler in favor of the freeze were Hughes, Gene Miles, Jim Moore, Mulch, Sneed, Wendel, Yeske, Young and Clark.
Mulch said he voted for the freeze because if this were a private sector job, a new person in a position would not necessarily be entitled to a raise, especially when the county salaries are already above the state average.
Deabenderfer said they had to be careful to vote for the position itself and not on the personality of the person or persons seeking office. As a school teacher, he felt pressured to retire his position so the district could hire someone at a lesser wage, and he didn't feel that was fair. Beeler said she wasn't advocating to cut the salary, just to maintain the current one.
Sneed offered an amendment with a one-year freeze for the treasurer and sheriff, followed by a $520 increase the remaining three years.
Clark said he felt none of the people running for office were doing it for the money, and that he was running for state representative to help people, just like elected officials here. He said since taxpayers are paying the bill, he felt there should be no increases to the salary over all four years.
Sneed's amendment to the motion would also ultimately fail 11-10. This time, those voting in favor of the one-year freeze were Hughes, Sandy Johnson, Miles, Moore, Mulch, Sneed, Wendel, Yeske, Young and Beeler.
The original motion to offer a $520 per year raise for four years to the treasurer, sheriff and county clerk and recorder was approved 18-3, with Beeler, Clark and Hughes voting against it.
Before the end of her report, Beeler reminded the board of budget hearings on Monday, July 9 and Monday, July 16, beginning at 8 a.m. She encouraged all board members to come and be part of it.
Beeler said the county will put out annual bids for electrical rates shortly.
The board also unanimously approved an increase from 53.5 cents per mile to 54.5 per mile in reimbursement, based on a change to the federal rates.
Beeler said her committee got an update on pending opioid litigation, and found out the county is in non-compliance for not having a weed control superintendent.
In a final item, the board unanimously approved a mileage and per diem report for Sarah Batty for lodging expenses that exceeded the state limit. By state statute, the county board has to approve all travel expenses over the approved amount.
Building and Grounds
Building and Grounds Committee Chairman Bob Sneed introduced Orry Cummings of Smart Watt to the board. Over the past several months their committee has been working with Smart Watt on an energy audit to find potential energy savings to the county. Sneed said the committee can't find any downside to the project, so they are recommending the county go ahead.
Cummings told the board this energy-saving project would not cost the county any additional taxpayer dollars moving forward. Smart Watt has provided a feasibility assessment to the county, showing the project can be self-funding.
Beeler asked how long the contract was for, and Cummings said it would depend on how much work was done. Typically, they recommend the county defer payment on the loan for 12 months, and begin to bank the savings in energy costs to help pay down the loan. Sneed said the company is required to guarantee savings to the county.
Savage asked how many projects Smart Watt has done like this, and Cummings said 12 to 15 in the past five years, all guaranteed projects. Plunkett asked the statutory limitations on the loan, and Cummings said it was 20 years, but they usually recommend 15.
Sneed said the committee was recommending to send out requests for qualifications, and then the county can proceed, but the county does not have to select Smart Watt to do the work, simply because they did the audit.
In other news, Sneed said they had no complaints on maintenance and cleaning, and that the roofing project on the jail was set to begin soon, weather permitting.
He added that the county will begin replacing 1,000 light bulbs at the Historic Courthouse with LED bulbs. Board member Jeremy Jones asked if the water fountain had been fixed at the courthouse, and Sneed said not yet, but they are working on it, as it has become a large project. Jones asked if they could bring water in to the courthouse for people, and Sneed said that only one of the water fountains has a problem.
Road and Bridge
Road and Bridge Committee Chairman Gene Miles reported on five upcoming projects that needed board approval. The board voted unanimously to approve work on all five projects.
They include $5,500 in pipe replacement on Donnellson Ave., $9,500 in pipe replacement on Donnellson Ave. and $10,000 for pipe replacement on Niemanville Trail. All of those projects are 100 percent county funded and funding comes from the County Aid to Bridge fund.
They also approved $5,000 for seeding various shoulders and ditches on approximately 4.25 acres that were reshaped last fall. Funding will come from the Federal Aid Match Fund. In a project split with Irving Township, the county will spend $6,000 on pipe replacement on North 17th Ave.
In a final item, Miles said he did not have an update on road repair from the Dakota Access Pipeline project. State's Attorney Bryant Hitchings said he will take the next step in recovering funds for the road project.
In elections news, Leitheiser said the primary election in March had been canvassed. She added that they had a successful random retabulation of two precincts, and the results came out exactly the same. She said her office is now moving forward to the November election.
HWE Committee Chairman Connie Beck said the state has paid in full its funding for the EPA grant.
In recycling news, Beck said they are behind as the small box truck is being repaired. Jones asked about the cost of the repairs and if it was worth it to repair the truck. Young said the parts would be about $1,400 plus labor.
Beck also reminded the community of an electronics drive on Saturday, April 14, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hillsboro facility.
In animal control news, Beck said they have eight dogs and no cats at the facility, and that things were going well.
EMA Chairman Bill Bergen said the ambulance billing department had been overwhelmed by requests for the audit, so the committee said all requests must be submitted in writing to ease confusion.
EMA Director Greg Nimmo said he was working with all county offices on a COOP (Continuity of Operations Plan) in case of emergencies, and that it should be complete by the end of the fiscal year.
Bergen said it looks like they may have funding for an update to GIS mapping for 911.
In a final item, Leitheiser reminded the board of the importance of LUCA (Local Update for Census Addresses), which is the first official report for the 2020 census. She encouraged board members to talk to municipalities in their district to make sure this was getting done. This was the step that was missed by Ohlman in the last census, which caused them to have zero population. She said they had to pay $5,000 to rectify the situation, and hopes the county can avoid that problem this time around.
Personnel Committee Chairman Kirby Furness said his committee heard an update on employee health insurance usage in the HRA, which is about 2.2 percent so far this year. The expectation is to have 25 to 40 percent usage over the course of the year.
Furness added that now all pharmacies will also be able to participate in the prescription drug program, beginning next year.
Furness said the county is still working on ID badges for employees and board members. His committee is also continuing to work on the identity protection act sample ordinance, which is being reviewed by the state's attorney and the ICRMT sample employee manual.
In a final update, Furness said they are still working on negotiations with two unions in Local 773. They have reached a tentative agreement with one and are still working on the other.
Before adjourning for the morning, the board met in closed session to review past closed session minutes. They selected some that they felt could be opened.
The board approved the re-appointment of Donald Sturgeon to the Shoal Creek Fire Protection District, Beverly Whalen as treasurer to the Coffeen Fire Protection District and William Beeler to the Raymond Community Fire Protection District.
The board met for nearly four hours in regular session before adjourning. They will meet again on Tuesday, May 8, at the Historic Courthouse in Hillsboro, beginning at 8:30 a.m.