Urbana’s goals: improved public safety, finances

In addition to general city improvement, Urbana will focus on reducing the $1.4 million deficit, renegotiating labor contracts and creating city-owned water, power and Internet services.

Diane Marlin, council member for Ward 7, said the council has decided on a set of six goals to improve the city: enhancing public safety, creating financial stability, increasing economic development, increasing sustainability, improving the downtown area and improving the quality of life in Urbana.

Mayor Laurel Prussing said the city can enhance its public safety by providing basic fire, police and municipal services.

Labor negotiations of contracts for fire, police and municipal employees will be starting this spring and new contracts will be decided on by June 30, she added.

“Employees are so used to annual increases,” Prussing said. “We are going to have to talk about holding the line until the economy turns around.”

Prussing said the city’s most immediate problem is finances.

“We were late to feel the effects of the recession,” Prussing said. “Sales tax has been lower than expected.”

According to a report prepared by Ron Eldridge, city comptroller, sales tax was down an average of 7.7 percent during the first four months of this past fiscal year, which started July 1, 2009. Sales tax makes up about 31 percent of the city’s funds.

Charlie Smyth, council member for Ward 1, said about $800,000 of the $1.4 million budget deficit will be resolved by federal government stimulus funds.

“The difference will be made up by minimizing purchases,” Smyth said. “But 75 percent of our budget is used to pay personnel, so we may have to leave some positions empty or fire (personnel) in public works.”

He said he did not know how many positions they may have to cut.

Prussing said she believes Urbana’s prospects could be much worse.

“We’re certainly felt less pain from the recession than other cities have been feeling,” Prussing said. “There have been few foreclosures.”

However, Prussing said the University’s economic problems will have an effect on Urbana, since the University’s staff makes up a significant portion of the community.

“There will be a direct relationship between the decrease in sales tax revenue and the furloughs at the University,” Prussing said. “These are the people who spend a lot of money in the community.”

Furloughs are in effect a pay cut. When University employees are paid less, they tend to spend less money which results in a decline in sales tax revenue, she added.

Urbana is also attempting to save residents money through the implementation of city-owned utilities, which would be cheaper than those supplied by commercial providers. Prussing said another goal for the city will be to implement new city-owned broadband, water and electric services.

“When Enron was being extremely destructive in California, the cities that did the best were the ones that owned their own electric utility,” Prussing said.

It’s unusual for a city not to own its water utility, she added.

Illinois American Water raised their rates by 47 percent in 2008. The rate increase proposed for this year is about 35 percent but will probably be substantially less by the time negotiations are finished in April, said Kathryn Foster, manager of external affairs for Illinois American Water.

Smyth said another priority will be making Urbana a bicycle-friendly community.

This will be accomplished through infrastructure improvements such as the implementation of bike lanes on major streets. The city will educate bicyclists, motorists and pedestrians about to how to interact with each other, he said.

“We’ll be removing parking from some streets to create bike lanes,” Smyth said. “The way that Goodwin Avenue was just completed is a great example of what we want for our major streets.”

Smyth said the city will be filming an educational video later this year as part of the bicycle education campaign.

Brandon Bowersox, council member for Ward 4, said that accountability will tie all of the city’s different goals together.

“We need updates available online on work progress from the top departments,” Bowersox said. “We need to be able to see how progress is happening.”