BELLEVILLE — Buckled sidewalks and broken curbs on Juanita Place will be fixed as part of a $430,000 street project in the proposed city budget for the coming year.
The three Belleville mayoral candidates in the April 9 election agree the street needs repair.
But two candidates, Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore and Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden, say the project illustrates the ambiguous way the city currently prioritizes the infrastructure needs.
Elmore and Hayden also question incumbent Mayor Mark Eckert's stance on acquired properties, such as Meredith Home.
The News-Democrat recently polled 50 residents across the city, asking them what they think are the top issues facing Belleville. Crime, which was discussed last week, topped the list, and infrastructure needs, including street repairs, sidewalks, sewers and historic buildings was second.
Hayden and Elmore say the Juanita Place improvements were not on their radar screen, even though both sit on the aldermanic Traffic Committee that reviews such projects.
Eckert, who is head of the Belleville Good Government Party, said the city has known of Juanita Place's infrastructure issues since before 2006.
Juanita Place, between West Main Street and Foley Drive on the city's west end, could be done before other projects because the project is in Tax Increment Financing District No. 3 and has a source of money, Eckert said. Other streets are not eligible for TIF and have to wait longer for money from other sources, namely motor fuel tax receipts and state grants.
Juanita Place also became a priority because of a parking dispute between two neighbors, resulting in the city's decision to widen the road.
Elmore, an independent, said the city needs to track street projects in a transparent, proactive way. He implied that street repairs leapfrog over others in similar or worse condition based on complaints or cronyism rather than an actual needs assessment.
"Without any plan, we react with, 'We'll find a way to fix it,' whenever a resident comes to us with a problem," Elmore said. "While fixing it is good, without direction, it's problematic."
Hayden, an independent with the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville, believes a pavement management system will help the city project upcoming infrastructure expenses at least five years ahead and budget for the projects.
"If we need the tools and resources, then we need to go out and purchase it, because in the long run it will save us money," he said.
Such data also could help work crews organize the most efficient route when they're sent out to patch potholes or want to tell a resident the last time their street was swept.
"I don't really know how they prioritize them, other than I know aldermen put in requests when they get complaints from residents," Hayden said.
The city should adopt a system similar to what the Illinois Department of Transportation uses to grade the condition of streets to see which streets need to be fixed first, Hayden said.
Eckert said the city keeps a list of roads that need to be fixed based on information from residents and aldermen. Then the city prioritizes projects based on the following factors: liability issues; disability laws; traffic count, and proximity to schools, businesses and churches.
"There's nothing I'd like more than to fix more streets," Eckert said.
Eckert said that during his administration the past eight years, the city has made more than $50 million in improvements to streets, sidewalks and curbs.
Major projects included the $11 million 17th Street extension, connecting West Main Street to Illinois 15 and Frank Scott Parkway, and the $7 million downtown streetscape.
Belleville City Engineer Tim Gregowicz said the city has more than 120 miles of sidewalks, 60 miles of alleys and 560 lane miles of roadway.
The proposed 2013-14 budget includes $5.972 million for the Street Department, which is 22 percent of the total $26.7 million budget. The city budgets about $250,000 yearly, on average, for sidewalk and curb improvements, Gregowicz said.
Residents and businesses wanting sidewalks always have the option of participating in the 50/50 Sidewalk Replacement Program where they split the cost of repairs with the city. Another program helps low-income residents in owner-occupied, single-family properties with sidewalk work in the city right-of-way.
Elmore said city staff should rely more on input from aldermen as to what roads need attention first.
McClintock Avenue is the priority right now in Ward 7, Elmore said.
The 2013-14 budget includes a McClintock Avenue street improvement project, a street that has seen much work throughout the years. The street will be resurfaced with asphalt and get new curbs, sidewalks, poles, signs and a two-foot gutter on each side of the street.
The $2 million project is planned for an IDOT letting in June, which means construction will likely start after summer, Gregowicz said. A $1.25 million federal grant covers part of the project and the city pays the remainder.
Still, Elmore said he has been asking for years for the city to replace about 30 feet of curb on McClintock near Virginia Avenue that was damaged by a city snow plow about 10 years ago.
Elmore asked for repairs in 2010, but the curb has still not been fixed.
"If the right person has a problem, then the problem goes away a lot quicker," Elmore said.
Eckert said the city did not break the curb. He said he has also told Elmore the curb will be fixed as part of the greater McClintock project starting later this year.
"Why put it in and then tear it out?" Eckert said of new curbs on McClintock.
Saving historic buildings
Whereas the candidates see roadwork as clearly in the city's purview, the city's role when it comes to maintaining historic buildings and addressing vacant or deteriorating buildings is muddled.
Hayden said he was pleased to save the Meredith Home, a historic building in the downtown Public Square, and Elmore agreed historic preservation is important.
But both Hayden and Elmore say the city should not act as if it is in the real estate business.
Eckert said the city purchased the Meredith Home property in 2010 from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville because the diocese said a troubled boy's home was interested in the space and the city was concerned of how that would affect downtown and surrounding businesses.
The diocese sold the building because it was losing money operating the home for senior citizens.
That year, local attorney Bruce Cook and his wife, Sandra, donated $492,101 to the city under the condition the city would turn the space into a park in honor of their daughter, Susanna Marison, who died from a brain tumor. The city used the donation to pay off a loan for the property.
The 2013-14 proposed budget includes $400,000 for demolition of the Meredith Home, with $300,000 from TIF No. 3 and $100,000 from TIF No. 17, Finance Director Jamie Maitret said.
Hayden said he does not support the Meredith Home being turned into a park. He said the prime downtown real estate should instead be turned into a revenue-generating building, such as what is planned for Turner Hall.
The City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to approve a development agreement with businessman Kurt Artinger, who wants to redevelop the building at 15 N. First St. and move his Swansea-based Replacement Services LLC to the site.
The 2013-14 budget includes TIF money to reimburse Artinger up to $210,000 to replace the roof and remove mold and asbestos.
Elmore said the Turner Hall deal is a good example of the city working with the private sector to invest in Belleville. But he questions how the city even came to own Turner Hall, which housed the YMCA until the business moved downtown.
Elmore wants to know: What were the alternatives to the city owning the building? The city bought the property for $1.
Eckert said he was not mayor at the time, but the agreement with the YMCA and Belleville School District 118 kept the YMCA in Belleville, in a new building that was built downtown at the site of the former Central School.
One proposal from Hayden is the start of a Belleville Business Assistance Program, which would have the city work with banks to give low-interest loans to businesses interested in the city's vacant buildings. A similar program would exist for homeowners.
Elmore said better enforcement and a city Housing Court will keep Belleville's aging buildings up to code so they don't deteriorate to the point the city has to buy them.
"We can't go through the next 25 years buying every building somebody leaves," Elmore said.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at email@example.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.