Saturday, September 23, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Want To Float A Trial Balloon?
CIP Debate Puts Ideas Into Play

The annual debate over the City’s Capital Improvements Plan is an excellent time to float trial balloons. Have a road project you want considered or a beautification project? Just fill it up with helium (and you thought politicians only used hot air) and release it during one of the Council Work Sessions.

Of course, not every idea gets off the ground. These quickly turn from trial balloons to the lead variety. Then there are those that get off the ground just far enough for your fellow Council members, the Mayor, City staff, press or public to riddle with arrows. It’s amazing how good your aim becomes with practice.

Fortunately, those that launch enough new ideas get a little better with practice. We try to take into account the direction of the prevailing political winds and political landscape.

The Capital Improvements Plan is a six-year planning document on how to spend the ? cent Capital Improvements Tax, the bulk of our gaming revenues and other miscellaneous funds and grants designated to pay for infrastructure or other capital items. We call it the CIP Budget for short. It seems a lot of programs or boards at City Hall eventually get reduced to initials. Sometime I’ll explain what HLPARB, CID, NID, TDD, TIF, CDBG, COW and PUC all mean other than a higher score at Scrabble.

Like the City Operating Budget, the City Administrator and Finance Director prepare the CIP. They start with a “wish-list” from every Department Director and sometimes input from elected public officials. There are always more requests than anticipated funds available, so their unenviable task is to pare down what everyone asks for. They then turn the plan over to the Mayor who can add, subtract or eliminate money from any line item she cares to before presenting it to the City Council the first week in July.

I always look forward to the CIP discussions and bring out my own wish list I’ve been saving all year like a kid about to visit the department store Santa. But this year didn’t feel much like Christmas in July. The economy is still weak and gaming funds are down. Couple that with the fact that surplus land we were expecting to sell by now was until recently tied up in court. The City kept winning, but the plaintiff kept appealing.

Then there is the County Executive Joe Ortwerth. He’s determined to leave office at the end of the year managing to have offended just about everybody. His latest “temper tantrum” was to hold $3 Million hostage that the County Road Board owes the City of St. Charles. This is money from the tax we all pay and was promised to reimburse us for projects the Road Board and the County had already agreed to pay a portion of.

He is doing it to force the City into paying the County $300,000 that we are disputing from 2005 as a payment for the Family Arena. At odds is whether or not the County lived up to its obligation to have a minimum of 115 “ticketed” events that year. To stretch to that number they have been counting things like high school graduation ceremonies where tickets are given out for crowd control, but not “sold” to the general public.

Rather than let the issue go to Court and be resolved Ortwerth resorted to his signature strong-arm tactics. All shall fall before the great and terrible Joe Ortwerth, yadda, yadda, yadda. I think the next County Executive will spend his first week taking down all the mirrors in the County Executive’s Office. They are the fun-house variety that makes you look more important.

So until that issue gets resolved (and yes, cooler heads are working on it), we have to cover those shortfalls ourselves. But I’m not one to let all the doom and gloom spoil my proposing a few changes in the CIP.

I want to see more funding for the façade grant program that I began a couple of years ago. It has been a boost to North Main and Frenchtown helping entice property owners to make larger investments in the upkeep or remodeling of their business properties. It’s been so successful that it was expanded to areas of First Capitol to Kingshighway and West Clay. Last year the council adopted a plan I proposed to expand the program to include small grants to help people with residential façade upgrades to help with neighborhood stabilization.

At our first CIP meeting I was successful in getting the Council to agree to add $50,000 to our efforts to upgrade lighting and other infrastructure along North 2nd in Frenchtown. I hope to get other monies set aside for capital projects and beautification on North Main and North 94 as well.

Of general interest is my desire to see us plan next year for a police and fire memorial to be built in 2008. I would also like to see the City continue the Historic Personages Statue program I instigated last year, which resulted in the wonderful new bronze statue to Daniel Boone. Next in the series would be Saint Philippine Duchesne, which would become a real icon for the First Ward at the corner of 2nd and Clark.

My most important goal is to get engineering money in the budget for the extension of Randolph from Fox Hill Road to Little Hills Expressway. Earlier in the year I proposed we add this project to our future goals and to request some of the funding from the County Road Board. I’m happy to say the County Road Board liked the idea and has agreed to add it to their list of projects to reimburse the City for in the future. The goal now is to get the project moved up.

In short, this “short” section of additional roadway will allow hundreds of residents of Fox Hills, DeVilla Trail, Fox Bluff, Country Bluff and Stable Ridge to be able to access the new Fifth Street Extension (Mel Wetter Parkway) without having to drive down Fox Hill Road, South on 94 and then back up the hill via Little Hills Expressway. I’ve had positive feedback from dozens of residents of these neighborhoods that such a connection will save time, gas and money for them every day.

There are other projects already in the CIP I will seek to enhance. I think I have identified an additional million dollars in 2009 that could be shifted to the proposed Community Center. There is also a new line item for a rental “conversion” program. The council has yet to establish the guidelines for this new program, but the goal is to help new first-time homebuyers afford to buy and convert to single-family use property formally used as rental property. It will most likely include a forgivable loan towards a down payment if the people agree to homestead the property for five years.

There are other line items I hope to protect from marauding bands of my fellow Council members as they do the same. When the smoke clears in a few weeks and all the wounds are bound, the City will have a new Capital Improvements Plan to guide us…till this same time next year.