The Geneva History Museum Cash Was Under the Shell Marked “Covid” All Along
“The schism created at the Feb. 6 council meeting was not about the respect and appreciation we have for the museum’s work, but the sudden abandonment of good governance principles – witnessed by the attempt to codify funding beyond the current fiscal year for one organization – without a comprehensive discussion on the parameters and protocols of a funding mechanism that addresses potential requests by outside organizations in an equitable fashion,” Burns said.
In February, the Geneva City Council defeated a resolution (the tally was 5 yeas and 5 nays) to fund the Geneva History Museum with $50K of local tax money. Remember, this is the same group that last year gave $75K to a private lobbying outfit in a failed attempt to buy political leverage for their failed Prairie State Energy Campus, a coal-fired earth warmer. But that $75K was based on “good governance principles.”
The Geneva City Council continues down its well-worn path known as the “Geneva Way.” Burns took his ruler and rapped the knuckles of the five aldermen who, in February, wanted to pass a resolution to fund the Geneva History Museum with $50,000 for one year from recurring locally collected tax sources. The resolution would not and could not make the $50K a yearly stipend, as it would have to be budgeted every year. But the resolution made a recurring revenue stream possible. What the resolution would not have done is to require the recipient to kiss the mayor’s ring annually.
The Mayor and his five night-riders, citing “good governance principles,” shut that insurrection down instantly. The Mayor even invoked his only power: voting in the case of Council ties. He brought the hammer down hard on the fingertips of the gang of five mutineers who dared to question his authority. He boldly voted “nay.” Of course, his vote was a free kick at the can. The resolution had already failed since only a majority vote could pass a funding resolution. But while we are on the subject of character, the book of good government principles includes this, “recusal is ethically required when a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question his impartiality in the matter.”
The Geneva City Council invokes formal rules such as FOIA, OMA, and even its own ordinances whenever convenient. Of course, the posse comitatus ignores these same rules when necessary to suit their purposes. Then they invoke their first principle of governance: “the ends justify the means.”
Now, in March, the City administration will roll out its favorite tactical manoeuver: the ambuscade. Miraculously, “Covid” (rhymes with covert) non-recurring funds of $51,000 has been found in the back of the small change drawer at City Hall. Federal money is free. The royal ring has been kissed. Crisis averted.
The Geneva Public Library District (GLPD) placed a referendum on the ballot in April of 2017 asking voters to approve a new $21.8 million bond issue to build a new library on the site of the old Sixth Street School. The referendum passed by 96 votes with a 32.5% voter turnout of 7705. No one asked for a recount.
The purchase of the Sixth Street School had its share of drama. The Library Board initially said it would hold a referendum on the purchase. Then the board had enough spare change lying around to offer the County $1.5 million plus $300,000 for demolition. The price “drifted” up to $1.8million and the demolition cost to $450,000 because of asbestos and an underground storage tank (both problems were known to be present for at least a decade). https://www.dailyherald.com/article/20150327/news/150329040/
The cost of the new 57,000-square-foot library was substantially north of the $21.8 million in bond receipts (not to mention the interest on the bonds). The GPLD wants to “transfer” the old library at 127 James Street to the City of Geneva for $450,000. The City of Geneva has not proffered a budget for remodeling and maintaining the new 30,000-square-foot space. Apparently, the $450K will come from spare change the City has found lying around.
But is the transfer ethical or even legal? Three Illinois statutes seem important: one authorizes transfers between municipalities but does not mention payments, another Act creates the statutory basis for the existence of Library Districts such as the Geneva Public Library District, and a third act sets out the general rules for the sale of publicly owned real estate.
The Act that authorizes Public Library Districts in Illinois ((75 ILCS 16/) Public Library District Act of 1991) contains these definitions for the purposes of the Act:
“District” means a public library district established under this Act and includes a proposed public library district.
“Library” means a public library, including one privately endowed or tax-supported or one established under this Act. “Municipality” means a city, village, or incorporated town.
The Act that authorizes local government property transfers (50 ILCS 605/) Local Government Property Transfer Act contains this definition:
The term “municipality” whether used by itself or in conjunction with other words, as in (a) or (b) above, shall mean and include any municipal corporation or political subdivision organized and existing under the laws of the State of Illinois and including, but without limitation, any city, village, or incorporated town, whether organized under a special charter or under the General Act, or whether operating under the commission or managerial form of government, county, school districts, trustees of schools, boards of education, 2 or more school districts operating a cooperative or joint educational program pursuant to Section 10-22.31 of the School Code, sanitary district or sanitary district trustees, forest preserve district or forest preserve district commissioner, park district or park commissioners, airport authority and township.
Notice that the Library statute does not define a Library District as a “municipality” and for “purposes of the act” the act narrowly defines “municipality.” By its plain language, the Library Act does not give Library Districts municipality standing to participate in transactions permitted by the Government Property Transfer Act. The Transfer Act contains a very lengthy list of eligible “municipalities,” including Park Districts. But the list does not contain “Library Districts.” The Loophole-Louey at City Hall employed by Mayor Burns will point to the phrase “but without limitation” as their loophole. But the City Code requires that when two provisions apply to a given matter, the more restrictive provision “shall [defined in the code as “must”] govern.”
A couple of other library districts in Illinois have taken a bite out of the property transfer apple. Has anyone challenged their action? Does the applicable city code in those cases contain the “most restrictive shall govern” clause?
A two-party political system is ugly and difficult to watch, very much like professional wrestling. Geneva’s Burns’ single-party system is even less attractive and much more expensive to watch than the WWE. And, just like the WWE, the fix is in. What about a referendum? Or, at the very least, a public auction of the old library and let Mr. Fritz send the new owner a property tax bill?
Rules for a Public Auction of the 127 James Street Old Library
The Transfer Act is silent on the price of the parcel being transferred, so it will be asserted, perhaps correctly, that the City is not required to pay anything. If so, how did the $450K come into play? I do not recall the GPLD divulging during the referendum campaign that the gifting (or selling for a nominal sum) the old library was part of the plan. Who negotiated the $450K, and on what authority? By voting for the library referendum, Geneva taxpayers may have forfeited the property tax income from the old library. And the “yes” voters may have unknowingly granted the City a blank annual check to remodel and carry the expenses of a “new” City Hall that is three times bigger than the current City Hall. The Library Board (unwittingly) snuck in a perpetual tax liability as a reward for (narrowly) passing its $21.8 million request.
(65 ILCS 5/11-76-4.1)(from Ch. 24, par. 11-76-4.1) Sec. 11-76-4.1. Sale of surplus real estate. The corporate authorities of a municipality by resolution may authorize the sale or public auction of surplus public real estate. The value of the real estate shall be determined by a written MAI certified appraisal or by a written certified appraisal of a State certified or licensed real estate appraiser. The appraisal shall be available for public inspection. The resolution may direct the sale to be conducted by the staff of the municipality; by listing with local licensed real estate agencies, in which case the terms of the agent's compensation shall be included in the resolution; or by public auction. The resolution shall be published at the first opportunity following its passage in a newspaper published in the municipality or, if none, then in a newspaper published in the county where the municipality is located. The resolution shall also contain pertinent information concerning the size, use, and zoning of the real estate and the terms of sale. The corporate authorities may accept any contract proposal determined by them to be in the best interest of the municipality by a vote of two-thirds of the corporate authorities then holding office, but in no event at a price less than 80% of the appraised value. (Source: P.A. 88-355; 89-78, eff. 6-30-95.)
Does the GPLD have a valid appraisal of $562,000 for the 127 James Street property? This is the lowest appraisal that would make a sale of price $450,000 comport with the above statute. Proper notice is mandatory, and a 2/3’s yes vote of the Library Board is required (5 yes votes). Has an appraisal been done? Where is the required resolution? How would a “yes” vote be fair and ethical to those library district taxpayers who do not live in the City of Geneva?
The Last (August 2019) Certified MAI Appraisal of the 127 James Street Old Library Property was $1,500,000
In 2018, The City of Geneva had No Interest in the Old Library
Slow down! Thursday night, the Library Board is to vote to “sell” the old library to the City of Geneva for $450K. This will put the City of Geneva taxpayers on the hook for renovations and expenses and potentially take $1.5 million off the tax rolls. The 2018 Burns letter claims “no further interest” in the building, but a secret last-minute deal is about to be cut. Why is the Library Board donating $1 mil to Geneva City Council? This is madness that begs for a more complete and transparent public vetting. A public auction of the property or a referendum are both paths to open, honest government. The current path is the Geneva Way – ambush the taxpayers.
The old stone structure at the eastern foot of the State Street bridge that was the core of the Mill Race Inn restaurant had many uses going back to the 1840s.
The present-day rubble stone ruins of the Mill Race Inn have a legacy that includes carriage painting on its roof, which has left lead pollution of unknown quantity and persistence. The site is a brownfield: a former industrial or commercial site where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/brownfield. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.”
Unfortunately, “micro-brownfields” exist scattered throughout most municipalities. For example, small rubbish “pits” were prevalent in Geneva. Industrial areas often disposed of coal bottom ash and cinders on-site and used it for fill.
The MRI ruins have some historical significance, but the surrounding context now is far different than 180 years ago. Last spring, the City Council severed the ruins from the rest of the historic site once known as Thompson’s Woods, a place immortalized in the poem of that name by Forrest Crissey. This was a lethal wound. Without context, the structure’s future value became permanently impaired. The first blow to the ruin’s historical context was struck in 1854!
The 1854-1883-1920-1961-2022 Geneva railroad “bridge” was (and is), in reality, half-bridge and half-dam. Bridgehunter.com | UP – Fox River Bridge (Geneva) (1920) The eastern Fox River channel was dammed in 1854 by the east bank bridge buttress, which cut off the lower third of the original Herrington’s Island. The eastern channel of the river below the RR bridge to the south was thus turned into a backwater slough, which was landfilled for about 100 years as a dump (mostly with mercury-rich coal bottom ash and cinders). Well into the 1950s, the municipal waste stream was binary: rubbish and garbage, the former being dry waste not readily decomposable. Garbage dumping was not permitted in the City of Geneva dump-in-the-slough. Geneva was heated and lit with coal, making coal bottom ash and cinders a large percentage of its “rubbish.” Later the slough was used as a shooting range, adding lead to the mercury contamination. The eastern channel was diverted back into the Fox River above the east bank buttress, but it has silted in, which changed the course of the river by erosion of the west bank.
An attempt in the early 1960s was made to “re-balance” the two channels around the remaining portion of Herrington’s Island by re-opening the old mill race (which had been filled mostly with coal bottom ash and cinders) using a large pipe and a ditch that ran from above the Geneva dam to just below the State Street Bridge and into the east channel. This worked to keep the east channel from becoming a stagnant water source of foul odor. But the State of Illinois ordered the ditch closed in 1964, and the odors returned – the river is much cleaner now than it was in the last century. Geneva Attorney (and folk hero to many) Roy Lasswell, (1924-1987), retained by the east side homeowners disgusted by the stench, blocked the bulldozer with his Volvo station wagon in 1964 to prevent the destruction of the balancing bypass of the dam. He was arrested.* See the Geneva Republican February 27, 1964, p1. https://box2.nmtvault.com/Geneva/jsp/RcWebImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=9351816b-0b6a-40e9-9d50-bf1f22f4eedf/gn000000/20221210/00000217
Earlier and gradually, the width of State Street was increased, and the grade was altered by cutting into the east side hill and raising the grade leading up to the bridge. As a result, the rubblestone ruins site lost much visibility and historical context. Its vernacular industrial architecture was often altered since its original construction. And the building was often vacant for extended periods. Structural integrity was cut to shreds by added fenestrations. The 1872 Kane County Atlas map of Geneva depicts that modern Crissey Avenue was then named Batavia St., and Bennett Street/Route 25 did not exist. The ruins were on the northwest edge of Thompson’s Woods, with George Thompson’s apiary the most well-known enterprise, and his honey much sought after.
Geneva has become obsessed with preserving the ruins, while the 1.8-acre riverfront site itself is the prize that should be coveted. Geneva is ignoring the brownfield status of the entire site. What is urgently needed is an environmental survey like that done at Shodeen’s proposed 1 Washington Place in Batavia. (After five years of planning and two failed TIF Districts, Shodeen pulled out of that project precipitously a year ago.) The City of Batavia owned the property and spent more than $500K on environmental remediation, including lead and mercury.
The uses on or near the MRI brownfield site were, just like in Batavia, sources of both mercury and lead plus petrochemicals and asbestos. One must not forget that the massive Bennett Mill mysteriously burned to the ground in 1971 (3129) GHM Minute: Bennett Mill: Geneva, IL – YouTube. The structure was brick, but lead paint was used widely on the interior and exterior. A “lead ash halo” was created, and the post-fire ash and rubble were simply plowed into the foundation, and never excavated. Arson is a dark recurring thread in Geneva’s historical fabric. The Howell Foundry on the west bank moved to St. Charles after a fire believed to have been set by an arsonist. A former Geneva village president’s barn suffered the same fate.
Other brownfield uses included lead paint spraying, a cinderblock factory (cinders=coal bottom ash rich = mercury), an automotive dealership with a garage (asbestos and lead), an auto radiator repair shop (lead), two gasoline stations (lead and petrochemicals), and, of course, fill was used that was often coal fly ash (mercury). The Bennett Mill ran on coal/steam much longer than on hydropower.
Fly ash (airborne) and bottom ash (falls to the bottom of the boiler) are considered environmental hazards worldwide since they generally contain organic pollutants, and probable toxic metals like Se, As, B, V, Al, Pb, Hg, Cr, and radionuclides Uranium, Thorium.
Unfortunately, many of these uses were “grandfathered” out of modern environmental requirements such as Leaking Underground Storage Tank regulations (pre-1974 uses are exempt). Environmental lead has a dissipation half-life of about 600 years. Under Illinois’s TACO, leaking storage tank rules, problem sites are often “papered over” and not remediated. Both East and West State Street are riddled with old gas stations that have not been mitigated. No one knows how many underground tanks remain. Don’s Gas-For-Less at State and East Side Drive Aldi is an exception that cost the city several 100K$ in TIF funds. Airborne lead now is the major route for childhood ingestion in the U.S.
Ironically, Geneva went from coal (mercury) to leaded gas (lead) to diesel (sub-2.5-micron particles) along Route 38 (State). Route 38 is a State designated truck route! Geneva put a Dunkin’ at the top of the hill on a LUST (leaking tanks)/TACO (Tiered Approach to Corrective Objectives) site where residential uses are prohibited by IEPA, as recorded on the deed! But minimum wage kids can work 12-hour shifts on the site. Geneva’s aldermen approved a drive-thru at the top of the hill (the vote was 5-5, with Mayor Burns breaking the tie with his yes vote creating the “Burns Dunkin'”) that will stop the diesel trucks coming up the hill. A stopped 40,000-pound load needs a lot of diesel fuel to get back up to 30 mph, especially up a hill. This is after Geneva received $1 mil in Federal CMAQ (congestion mitigation/air quality) grants to improve diesel efficiency and air quality along East State Street!
Another consideration, albeit a bit tangential, is that the Geneva dam will likely be removed in the not-far-distant future. Please see Back to When the River Made Pearls, not Stenches – Rod’s Ramblings and Ruminations (genevanotes.com). The advantages and disadvantages of dam removal are discussed by the “Friends of the Fox” here: Frequently Asked Dam Questions | Friends of the Fox River. Removing the dams will make the Fox River friendlier to canoeists, kayakers, and fishermen. “Clamming” (and pearls) might even come back. The City of Geneva and the Geneva Park District should seriously consider how the increasing demand for access to the river will be met. If the river becomes a rafting, canoeing, kayaking “highway,” an enter/exit/rest-stop in the heart of downtown Geneva could also be an economic/tourist booster.
I do not oppose the redevelopment of the old MRI site. However, I am for doing it right. Lead, mercury, asbestos, petrochemicals, etc., pose a potential risk to current and future residents. Disturbing the site, a brownfield based on its prior uses could put contaminated dust in the air for current Geneva children to inhale. This is not covered by the current permitting process, which does not mandate heavy metal testing, For example. examine how Batavia handled a nearly identical scenario on its old industrial site on the east bank of the Fox. As the property owner, the City did a thorough independent environmental assessment beyond what was “covered” by the permitting process. Batavia found contaminants (including lead and mercury) and mitigated the site with IEPA guidance.
Notice that even though the developer (Shodeen) walked away at the very last moment, the Batavia site is now green and neat and kept that way. Unfortunately, Batavia lost a historic church but did not leave the foundation as a gaping, water-filled hole. Geneva’s similar site is a disgrace and an embarrassment to its citizens. See, for example, Kane County Chronicle, 2019/02/25: “Batavia aldermen ok lead cleanup plan: While aldermen have been sharply divided on the redevelopment project itself, they closed ranks to approve the cleanup plan, saying they essentially had no choice.”
The Geneva aldermen refuse to remove their blinders lest they catch a glimpse of the potentially serious problems they have repeatedly and irresponsibly chosen to ignore.
* Attorney Roy Selleck Lasswell, an east sider, lived at 860 N Bennett Street near Division in Geneva just south of the St. Charles line. He was a graduate of the Northwestern School of Law and served in the U.S. Navy as an LTJG in WW II. I had the privilege of knowing his wife, Carol, a court reporter. Roy’s father, Tull C. Lasswell, was also an attorney. In 1962-3 Mr. Lasswell was the Geneva City Attorney. He expressed pride in the Geneva Plan Commission. In the mid-70’s the Lasswell’s moved to Batavia.