Some oppose DHS project as wasteful

Improvements partly funded by IEPA grant require matching city dollars

DANVILLE — With the city on the verge of awarding a construction contract for $1 million in campus improvements at Danville High School, some aldermen are balking at spending $519,000 in local tax dollars on the project.

It's not the first time aldermen have expressed disapproval for the proposed work that would improve the appearance, pedestrian safety and infrastructure on the west side of Danville High where the vast majority of students, faculty, staff and visitors enter the campus.

Last year, when the city was awarded a $750,000 Illinois Environmental Protection Agency grant for the project, aldermen argued that it was not the right project for the hundreds of thousands of local dollars required to match the state grant.

But the city, with council approval, accepted the grant and is now poised to begin construction but needs council approval on the bid.

Aldermen Rickey Williams Jr., Ward 1, Jon Cooper, Ward 6, and Bill Black, Ward 7, all voted against the project earlier this week at the public works committee meeting, sending the bid proposal to the full city council with no recommendation. The full city council will vote on the bid at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the municipal building, 17 W. Main St., Danville.

Williams said the design of the improvements at the high school are brilliant, but he can't support the project.

"I feel again this is a monumental waste of taxpayer dollars," Williams said.

Black said tax-increment finance districts are meant to enhance property values within the districts, and he believes this parking lot project will do nothing to enhance the property values in the neighborhood.

The other two aldermen present at the public works committee meeting, Mike O'Kane, Ward 4, and Mike Puhr, Ward 5, both voted in favor of the resolution awarding the construction contract to Midwest Asphalt, which had the lowest bid at $986,487.

The project entails aesthetic and infrastructure improvements to the campus on the west side of the high school across Jackson Street. West of Jackson are multiple student/faculty parking lots and green space, where the district has acquired and demolished several dilapidated properties in the last few years.

The area to be improved is bordered by Clay, Jackson, Woodbury and Hazel streets and is divided into two large rectangles, one a grassy area bordering Hazel Street and the other an asphalt parking lot bordering Jackson Street.

In addition to the $750,000 IEPA grant, the city plans to spend $519,000 in local tax dollars, including $484,000 in tax increment financing revenues and about $35,000 in sanitary sewer funds.

With that money, the grass lot will be turned into a multipurpose field that can host various activities and serve as overflow parking; historic drainage problems in the area will be fixed; the flow of traffic and pedestrians will be changed, improving efficiency and safety; new handicapped parking spaces will be added; and the overall aesthetics will be improved with new curbs, gutters, sidewalks and landscaping.

Danville school board member Randall Ashton said it's a very positive project for the students, school and whole community not only for improving the appearance of the campus but also for safety reasons.

The main entrances and most student and visitor parking are on the west side of the school, requiring hundreds of students to cross Jackson daily. That side also is the sole drop-off and loading spot for vehicles and school buses, creating a congested area, especially at the start and close of school days. The design will entail changes to improve pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Ashton said when people visit the school or are considering Danville, they check out the local schools, and making these improvements will help the first impression of Danville High. Ashton said he also believes the project can enhance property values in the area. He said the work that's been done already, acquiring and demolishing dilapidated properties, has already done that. In most communities, he said, it's desirable to live near schools, but people won't if it doesn't look nice.

"So we see a lot of benefit to the project; it's not just wasteful spending," he said.

School district officials have discussed a facelift on the west side of Danville High for more than 15 years, and at one time, had conceptual drawings that entailed even more significant improvements that would have achieved some of the same goals. When the city applied for and was awarded the IEPA grant, it made this project possible, mostly because of the drainage work that will use environmentally acceptable ways to capture and recycle runoff from the parking lot and grassy areas.

David Schnelle, urban services director for the city, said the entire $750,000 grant won't be used, because it can be spent only on certain environmental aspects of the project. The grant also requires local matching dollars, and that's where the city's tax-increment revenue comes into play.

The high school sits in the city's most-productive tax-increment district, the Midtown TIF, which is a designated area established in 2005. Revenue generated from increases in the property tax base within the district is diverted from the various taxing bodies, including the school district, and placed in a fund controlled by the city. Those funds can be spent in various ways, but only within the district and are generally geared toward improvements that will spur economic development and a continued increase in the property tax base.

Since 2005, $909,103 in property tax revenue has been diverted from the Danville school district to the TIF fund. The city has two other TIF funds established since 2005 in other areas of the city that have collectively diverted another $153,000 in property tax revenue from the district.

The Midtown fund has contributed toward several economic development projects, including the redevelopment of the former vacant grocery at 311 W. Fairchild St. into a site for Carle Clinic, the redevelopment of a building on Franklin Street for the company TH Snyder, the development of the Mach 1 gas station on Gilbert Street, the development of the new Social Security building on North Vermilion Street and others.

Superintendent Mark Denman said city officials approached the district several years ago about forming the Midtown district. Denman said the district supported the TIF district and its goal of redeveloping the middle of the city. He said city officials said at that time that they would use some of the money to help improve the area around Danville High as a gateway to the community. He said the district has contributed to this project to a small extent, buying some of the dilapidated properties.

Listing all the project aspects, like drainage control, new sidewalks, curbs, traffic control and redirection and safety, Denman said it's not just a parking lot project. He said the Danville High School marching band also looks forward to practicing on the grass multipurpose field rather than asphalt.

"It will be a more pleasant avenue to Danville High School for the thousands of people who come there every year," he said. "We would certainly like to see some of the TIF money reinvested in the school district. We certainly supported the TIF district."

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