Batavia Chamber of Commerce responses

Steve Vasilion, Ward 5

1. Does the City's development approval process need to be streamlined? Why or Why Not? If it does, how would you improve it?

Batavia’s development approval process definitely needs streamlining. Since the 5th ward encompasses most of Batavia’s downtown, it is paramount that this ward’s alderman becomes a champion for creating an atmosphere that is conducive for our business community. A healthy downtown requires a shared vision that permeates all levels of city government: an attitude of collaboration that constructively engages business owners to create win‐win scenarios. I can help address the obstacles that stand in the way of successful downtown development as follows:

  1. Aldermen are often not aware of staff‐level decisions being made during the review of projects in the planning stages. The council’s role is to set policy, and staff’s responsibility is to execute it. If the council mandates a policy that is conducive and welcoming to owners and businesses, then staff will respond accordingly. As alderman, I will work to create a clear vision and create a culture of collaboration between these two bodies, with a goal of establishing a policy that encourages economic opportunity.
  2. I have seen that plan commission members and city council members are often not involved early enough in the dialogue about prospective projects. Frequently, they do not see the details of a project until it comes to them for a vote: even though the project may have been under staff review for months, if not years. I want to see the council and plan commission members involved earlier in the planning process, even if only in a summary report of what is taking place on projects with respect to staff review, negotiations, issues, timelines, etc.
  3. Our commissions need more members with business experience and professional expertise. When vacancies arise, I will actively seek out qualified individuals and present my recommendations to the mayor, who handles appointments. These vacancies also need to be promptly filled.

2. Do you know how much money is, or will be available to the City through its TIF districts? How would you propose to use the remaining funds to encourage economic development?

 The TIF fund is ever‐changing, but currently has close to $500,000. There will be more than $16.5 million over the remaining life of the current TIFs, according to information provided by the city.

A number of streetscape improvements are targeted over the next 10‐15 years. The order and magnitude of these improvements is flexible. I want to see these funds targeted in the areas where the improvements will bring the quickest and highest return of our expenditures. We need to provide infrastructure improvements that both strengthen the businesses already located here as well as attract businesses interested in relocating to Batavia.

I will seek improvements for the Water Street Arts District. Businesses have wanted to relocate here but their interest has waned for the lack of sufficient parking, safe sidewalks and adequate lighting. If we spend all available and future TIF funds on streetscape improvements elsewhere we will not have any funds to address the needs of actual businesses that desire to commit to Batavia. The streetscape renovation on River Street has had mixed results. It accomplished a much‐needed renovation; however:

• We spent far more of our TIF funds than was anticipated, which will hurt our ability to improve other targeted areas;

• The remodeling resulted in a reduction of parking in an area that already lacked adequate parking;

• The on‐street parking is confusing: it is difficult to identify where the parking is actually allowed.

• We hired design consultants without seeking proposals from qualified local firms. This alienates and hurts local design firms who miss an opportunity to contribute within their own community.

3. The City has purchased more power then they currently need from the Prairie State power plant. How do you propose to deal with this issue and keep electric rates in line with other communities?

This is a complex issue with ramifications for years to come. Batavia ratepayers have been burdened with a 30‐year, $246 million obligation to Prairie State.

Instead of lowering our electrical costs, this obligation has resulted in an increase. The city has finally disclosed that annual income may not match expenditures until 2024 at the earliest. Several steps need to be taken In order to move ahead and find a solution:

• We need to hire advisors for NIMPA who are unbiased and objective. Since our involvement with PSEC, NIMPA’s primary consultant has been the Indiana Municipal Power Agency. The president of IMPA is also the chairman of the board of PSEC. We need to seek advice and direction from those without a direct fiscal connection to PSEC.

• The accounting of this project is suspect, so much so that the SEC has subpoenaed financial records from the Prairie State developer (Peabody). For example: there was a $1 billion dollar overrun in project costs for which it appears that we have no GAAP‐compliant accounting (I have personally made two requests to the city asking where this information may be found and have not received a response). We need to aggressively pursue full financial disclosure in the form of balance sheets, profit and loss statements, and cash flow reports in full compliance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.

• To the greatest extent possible, we need to make all Prairie State‐related information public. Educate the citizens and share this information on the city’s website in common language.

• Ohio U.S. Representative Kucinich has called for a formal investigation of possible violations related to allegations that Peabody used deceptive tactics to persuade municipal utilities across the Midwest to sign contracts with Prairie State. If Prairie State has violated the law, misled municipalities, and not fulfilled the terms of their contract we may be able to extricate ourselves. I will recommend a state investigation by the Illinois attorney general for the protection of our rate payers.

• We need to establish a “lessons learned” process: What have we learned? How can we avoid making similar decisions in the future?

• Lastly, virtually all the information we know about PSEC has come from private citizens who have filed FOIA requests and obtained information regarding the contract, the costs, and the operations of the facility. We need to acknowledge and give credence to the investigative efforts of the citizens who have worked hard to obtain this important information, made it public and asked valid questions. Further, we need to tap into their energy and resourcefulness to continue to bring understanding and transparency to this very important issue.

4. Batavia's property tax rate rose 12% last year. What can the City do to increase EAV so residents gain relief?

There are five ways to increase the EAV:

  1. Add new property to the tax rolls. This can occur by developing a vision for downtown Batavia that results in new businesses relocating here.
  2. Improve the value of existing property, such as through expansion and remodeling. By streamlining our review and approval process businesses wanting to expand and remodel won’t have to wait years for the process to run its course.
  3. Incorporate additional property into the taxing district, by expansion of our city limits.
  4. Sell the various city‐owned buildings and properties. Returning these properties to private ownership will return these properties to the tax roll.
  5. Remove property from TIF districts. Creating a TIF district actually creates a tax increase. Citizens must fully understand how a TIF district operates, including the positive and negative aspects. With a fully informed citizenry, we can all decide if a proposed TIF district creation (or renewal/extension of an existing TIF) is in the community’s best interests.
5. In surveys, citizens put a high priority on downtown development. What do you propose to improve our downtown?

While campaigning I have had the opportunity to hear from many Batavians about their hopes and concerns for the town they love. I share their vision and concerns. We face many challenges as we seek to balance our plans for the future while maintaining the small‐town charm we love. Batavia is a distinctive jewel in the Tri‐Cities crown. We have so much to offer our residents and visitors, but we can do better. Improving the quality of our historic downtown will add polish to our gem. Downtown improvements will start with a city council and city staff who have a shared vision for Batavia. Through better policymaking we can achieve this vision:

• Support the arts community: Batavia is home to Water Street Studios, the Albright Theater Company, the popular Art in Your Eye festival, and the new Batavia Fine Arts Center. Recently, several dance schools have been added to the downtown mix that already includes music schools and fitness centers. Our growing and successful arts community makes Batavia unique and brings many visitors to our town. These endeavors should take center stage, with city council improving access and parking for these properties, and encouraging the development of more arts‐related projects.

• Maximize our natural resources: The beautiful Fox River and trails that run through our town are our No. 1 resource. Upgrades to our river walk and providing convenient access will also enhance these amenities. Continued support for our successful athletic events like the triathlon, and various cycling and running competitions is crucial. Repairing the dam will help sustain water levels at Depot Pond and along the river, making this resource more attractive.

• Maintain our historic buildings: Batavia is rich in history and historic buildings. The integrity of our historic buildings should be maintained, and new businesses should be encouraged and incentivized through grants and other programs to locate into these unique sites. Many older structures will find years of new life through creative adaptive re‐use policies and planning.

• Create amenities that attract families: Batavia is already home to a great outdoor venue, the Peg Pond Center and band shell. Developing the surrounding area will enhance this attraction — already a draw for its family‐friendly concerts and fairs.

• Fill our storefronts: Improved and streamlined planning policies will make it easier for businesses to expand and for new businesses to locate here. Continuing our grant and low‐interest loan programs will continue to incentivize growth. Batavians will then enjoy more shopping, dining and recreation options in their own town.

• Promote a walkable town: It’s important for our residents and our visitors to enjoy Batavia’s amenities on foot. Through cooperative planning and reasonable zoning, along with street and parking improvements, Batavia could become more pedestrian friendly.

• Stabilize property taxes. High and increasing taxes make it difficult for people who are on a fixed income to stay in their homes driving demand and increasing property values throughout the city.

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