2018 was another bad year for the Jacksonville’s Links golf courses. Like most municipal golf courses, the Links loses money every year. It was clear as early as August that 2018 was going to be a particularly bad year for the courses. The recently released 2018 audit shows just how dire the situation is becoming for the courses.
Total operating losses totaled $198,000. This is nearly triple the losses suffered in 2012. Expenses were up eight percent since ’12. The real driver is that revenue is down 24 percent, from $377,000 in ’12 to just $288,000 last year. This is why the cash infusion from the city came much earlier in the year; the Links was struggling to cover payroll expenses due to low revenue. And unlike in years past when the bailout is needed in the winter months, last year the Links needed help during the fall.
Fixing the root problems at the course will not be easy. Golf participation is declining nationally, and Jacksonville has not been spared from these trends. But the first step is admitting there is a problem. A golf advisory committee was created in February 2018 and they did provide some good recommendations for improvements. But their last meeting was more than a year ago. In full council meetings, council members are reluctant to even acknowledge that revenue is down substantially from years past.
Six-figure losses are the new normal for the Links. It is up to the council to decide if they want to continue to write these losses off, or come up with a more sustainable plan for the courses.
You can read the full audit here.
Jacksonville hears proposals for municipal solar arrays and park grants
Several new projects may be coming to Jacksonville. The Parks and Lakes committee discussed two state grants to improve local recreation. A 50-50 matching grant could provide up to $400,000 to help restore the Nichols Park pool.
A second grant would provide funds to be used on the lakes. The committee decided that fixing the boat ramp area for Lake Mauvaisterre was the best use of the grant. Although lots of work has been into the lake, many boaters are reluctant to put their boats out due to the poor conditions of the launch ramps. Other projects were considered, but fixing the main point of entry for the lake was considered a prerequisite for any other recreation project.
Both projects depend on a successful grant application, which will be submitted in the coming weeks.
Next, Joe Christian from Simpleray came to discuss potentially adding solar arrays to the city’s water plants. These plants require large amounts of power and solar is one possible way of cutting down on these costs. They also have considerable amounts of open space, making them plausible candidates for solar arrays.
The proposal calls for a 25 year deal with Simpleray, where they would install and operate the arrays, and sell power to the city. They want a locked-in rate that is currently below the market price. Based on Simpleray’s cost projections for electricity, the city could save over $2 million over the duration of the deal. At the end of the deal, the city would buy the arrays, which are projected to last for at least another ten or fifteen years.
There are some concerns with the deal. Technical questions remain about facility planning. New structures are planned at the treatment plants, and any new solar arrays would need to be built around both current and future structures. There were also finical concerns. 25 years is a long commitment for a utility price. Even though it is below projections, no one knows what the price of power will be in the future.
The arrays themselves also had unknown costs. Since the city would take ownership of the arrays after 25 years, the city would be responsible for disposing of the panels once they reached the end of their usefulness. The Simpleray consultant was unsure how expensive it would be to dispose of the panels even under current regulations. Like many forms of electronic trash, it is not known what new rules may apply to solar panels in 25 or 30 years.
Simpelray was interested in moving forward quickly, because there are Federal incentives that will expire at the end of the year. Despite some interest from the council, Alderman Wankel pointed out that the city’s engineers will need to examine the plan, and it may need to go out for a bid. Special Studies is planning a dedicated meeting to discuss solar options in the near future.
Ward 2 retirement
Monday’s meeting was also the last for longtime Alderman Tony Williams. Williams was recently reelected in April, but is moving out of the ward. Mayor Ezard will appoint his replacement, but there is no word on who will be selected to fill the term.
You can watch the full workshop session in the player above.
City Council hears final arguments, recommendations in Ward 2 recount
The Ward 2 aldermanic race might set a new record for closest election that wasn’t a tie. The first full count showed Gail Simpson leading Shawn Gregory by a single vote. Gregory challenged the result and asked for a recount. Then the race got closer. After the recount, the recommendation of the hearing officer was to declare Simpson the winner by not one vote, but 0.361 votes.
During the recount, all of the ballots were inspected again. That further inspection revealed that some of the ballots had problems. A ballot that is not filled out correctly can be disqualified. One had two colors of ink, one was damaged and had to be reconstructed, and another had two candidates marked. These ballots were resolved on an individual basis.
But there were two sets of ballots that needed further discussion. The first were ballots where the election judge marked them in the wrong place. There is a line where the judge should put their initials so the tabulators know it is a valid ballot. Three ballots, all from the same judge, had marks near, but not on, the provided line. Two of them were for Gregory. They were not counted in the hearing officer’s recommendation.
Another group of ballots came from the Mary Bryant Home. The Mary Bryant Home is a community for the blind and visually impaired. Due to their conditions, many of these voters required assistance in filling out their ballots. To protect the integrity of the vote, especially with vulnerable populations, there are affidavits that must be filled out by the voter and the assistant to make the votes valid. For thirteen ballots, this did not happen.
However, the affidavits do not match specific ballots. To ensure voter privacy, the ballot cannot be directly tied to a specific voter. When the thirteen ballots were thrown out, each candidate had a proportional reduction in their count based on how well they did in each precinct. In the end, Simpson lost 4.278 votes, but Gregory lost just 2.639 votes. That closed the margin, but did not eliminate Simpson’s lead.
The real debate hinges on how comparable council members think these two types of errors are. John Mehlick, the hearing officer for the recount, considered both errors equally disqualifying. Although he stressed that he did not want to throw out any votes, he pointed out instructions were not followed on both. During his remarks to the council, Mehlick stressed that the council should demand “excellence” from its election judges and administrators.
Not everyone agreed with that logic. Questions from several aldermen suggested that they found the initials to be a far less serious breach of protocol than those on the affidavits. Others argued that disqualifying votes due to errors from election officials was not something they wanted to do, and argued both sets of ballots should be included.
The council’s decision
There are three likely outcomes the council could decide on. If both sets of ballots are eliminated, then Simpson wins. If both sets of ballots are kept, Simpson would still win. And if the affidavits are thrown out, but the initialed ballots are kept, then Gregory wins.
The choice is unenviable. Most of the time, standards are set without knowing how it will impact an election. Today, the council knows it is not just setting a standard to follow, it is also picking winners and losers in a democratic election. The Simpson team asked Alderwoman Turner to recuse herself due to her party’s endorsement of Gregory during the campaign. Turner agreed to this request, saying that if her stepping back would help the post-decision healing process in the community, then she would do so.
The rest of the council did not come to an agreement Tuesday night. Aldermen Redpath, Fulgenzi, Proctor, DiCenso, and Hanauer moved to accept the hearing officer’s recommendation, and declare Simpson the winner. Aldermen McMenamin, Conley, and Donelan, as well as Mayor Langfelder voted against, which prevented the motion from passing. Any motion will take 6 affirmative votes to pass.
The council will reconvene Thursday night to continue their discussion of the issue and come to an acceptable agreement. You can watch their full discussion in the player above, and read all of the documents from the recount here.
Local Airbnbs to City Council: let us pay taxes
Who wants to pay more in taxes? Normally, business owners point to Illinois’ high tax burden as a problem, but some property owners in Jacksonville actually want to be allowed to pay more. One of these owners is E. Scott DeWolf, who runs an Airbnb location in Jacksonville. But when DeWolf went to the city to voluntarily pay the hotel motel occupancy tax, he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to do so.
Airbnb is a short-term rental service where property owners can rent out rooms or buildings that they own. DeWolf was joined by Professor Kevin Klein and Bryan Leonard to discuss the positive impact Airbnb has had on the local tourism environment. They shared how the experience they can create in their properties fills a niche that regular hotels don’t, and that this draws visitors from across the state and even some from over seas.
However, despite being an internationally recognized brand, Airbnb still operates in a legal grey area. Listings aren’t considered rental properties, because visitors have short stays like at a regular hotel or bed and breakfast. But they aren’t recognized as hotels either because they are otherwise residential properties. As a result, since the start of Airbnb, taxation has been an issue. While Airbnb has taken some voluntary steps to collect the occupancy tax, this collection has varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. To further complicate matters, not every area wants Airbnb to operate there. Adding new rooms may impact the viability of existing hotels, and adding new traffic to residential areas can disrupt neighborhoods. In Jacksonville’s case, Airbnb is not recognized as a hotel, which is why they cannot pay the local occupancy taxes.
It may seem strange that Airbnb operators would want this to change. Why ask the council to raise their taxes? There is a very pragmatic reason: if Airbnb locations do not pay the occupancy tax, they cannot advertise with the local tourism boards. This keeps them out of some of the main local referral networks. They cannot even leave brochures with the tourism board.
But their request is also driven by a genuine commitment to the community. These owners have heavily invested in building up their properties and enhancing local tourism. And adding more rooms is necessary for Jacksonville’s busiest tourism days. When sporting events take place, or the college host graduation, visitors often have to room as far away as Springfield or Lincoln. Building up a healthy community is good business for everyone.
In the mean time, DeWolf said that they were still willing to contribute to the community even if they cannot pay taxes directly. He personally offered to donate 5% of his sales, equivalent to the tax he can’t pay, to the Jacksonville Heritage Culture Museum.
You can watch their full presentation in the player above, and the rest of the city council meeting below.