Small town, tight connections
LIMESTONE — A dozen years ago, the village of Limestone was founded as a defense against perceived annexation by the much larger Kankakee.
The lightning-bolt-shaped, largely rural village west of Kankakee operates on a relatively small budget. It does not levy a property tax and, instead, relies on sales and other taxes.
To get business with the village, connections apparently help in some instances.
Examples exist: The mayor got a real estate commission as part of the sale of property to the village. The clerk rents out a storage building to the village for nearly $1,300 per month. And an in-law of the mayor acts as a private contractor performing public works duties, work that never went out to bid.
Mayor Sandra Girard, who took the helm in 2009, describes village government as open with taxpayers, with every dollar accounted for.
During an interview, she and the village’s clerk, Maureen Dubuque, were more than willing to show village records to a reporter at village hall.
“Our doors are open to the people of the village,” Girard said.
As the office manager, Dubuque makes $30 per hour, but gets no pension or health benefits. But she receives an additional $1,275 per month for a storage building on her property that houses village equipment and salt.
The village has spent $3,670 for improvements to the storage facility since it started renting Dubuque’s building about five years ago. To justify making capital improvements to a property the village does not own, the clerk noted she let the village use the structure free of charge for the first year, more than offsetting the costs of the upgrades.
As it turns out, the village won’t need Dubuque’s storage building forever. In 2014, it purchased a house next to village hall. Officials plan to tear that building down and replace it with a storage building.
Representing the village was none other than Mayor Girard, a real estate agent. Her commission in the transaction was $2,310.
“I brought the issue to the board,” the mayor said. “We were going to need room to expand. They recommended I look into writing the contract to purchase the home.”
As for the commission, Girard said, “I considered not taking it. I said I didn’t want to be paid.”
But the clerk said village board members wanted the mayor to accept the money “because of what she had to go through dealing with a foreclosure.”
The officials said they checked with attorneys and others and found the mayor’s acceptance of a commission would not be a problem.
Another example of connections is the village’s public works department. It is run by a Kankakee-based business, Reds Slinging Service Inc., owned by Chuck Summers, whose wife is the mayor’s cousin.
Most independent contractors use their own equipment, but Summers gets to use the village’s. His business made $45,000 working for the village last year. He does many of the things a public works department would do, including maintaining roads.
As part of his responsibilities, Summers mows the sides of roads, making $54.77 per hour, which he said was the prevailing wage rate for heavy equipment operators. In Illinois, prevailing wages are the union pay scale that government bodies are required to pay contractors.
Summers has been doing work for the village for at least five years, but Limestone officials say the village never entered a contract with Red Slinging or went out to bid.
“It’s a verbal agreement. They call us, we do the task,” said Summers, who dropped by village hall during the Daily Journal’s interview with the mayor and clerk. “They bought a mower and backhoe. They didn’t have anyone to operate the equipment.”
The mayor said the work was not required by law to go out to bid.
“Each job is considered individual. We didn’t go over the amount that it has to go out to bid,” she said.
Summers said Limestone officials looked for people to operate the mower, but they encountered problems. Then Summers’ son started doing the work, and things worked out, Summers said. That’s when Red Slinging entered the picture.
Summers said he bills the village for a fourth of the time he actually works.
“If I billed for everything, it would be for significantly more money,” he said. “They bought the equipment, but had no one to operate it. The village of Limestone has a hell of a deal.”
“Chuck knows where the drainage tiles are. In all of Limestone, the biggest problem is drainage. We have spent a lot of dollars to fix problems that were ignored for years,” she said.
Village officials hope to annex more territory, which will generate more tax money, allowing it to hire a full-time public works employee.
“If we have a full-time person, we have to have to the equipment for that person,” Dubuque said.
Summers said the village should get a full-time public works employee.
“They need to move in that direction,” he said.
‘VERY TIGHT WITH MONEY’
On its payroll, the village has a full-time employee, Dubuque, and a part timer who works in the summer.
In December, Limestone holds an event for those involved with village government. Officials once called it a “Christmas party for staff,” but changed the title to the secular “appreciation party” on the advice of their attorney.
The party is for the staff, the village’s elected officials and representatives of Red Slinging and another contractor. Girard noted the mayor and trustees don’t get paid, and their only form of compensation is the annual appreciation dinner. In past years, the party has cost more than $1,000.
The mayor said she is proud of her village and wants to do the best she can for it.
“I drive through this village at least once a week. I go to every subdivision we have, make sure there are no potholes, no debris,” Girard said. “My first question at meetings is ‘what’s it going to cost?’ We’re very tight with money.”