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Employment agreements for Washington department heads will shield them from political winds

City of Washington department heads (from left) Jon Oliphant, Dennis Carr and Brian Rittenhouse listen to a speaker during a 2023 City Council meeting.
Steve Stein
City of Washington department heads (from left) Jon Oliphant, Dennis Carr and Brian Rittenhouse listen to a speaker during a 2023 City Council meeting.

Each Washington department head now has an employment agreement with the city.

The City Council on Monday approved agreements for Finance Director Joanie Baxter, Public Works Director Brian Rittenhouse and Planning and Development Director Jon Oliphant.

City Engineer Dennis Carr was granted an agreement April 1 after he requested it, citing concerns about the outcome of the 2025 city election.

Council members said April 1 and again at their April 8 committee of the whole meeting that they were open to similar agreements for Baxter, Rittenhouse and Oliphant, so the agreements were on the table Monday.

City Administrator Jim Snider, whose job duties, according to the city code, include the hiring, job performance evaluation, discipline and firing of department heads, said the agreements protect the city because they should keep "the fine people we have now" on board as department heads if he's no longer the city administrator.

"Politics sometimes becomes a blood sport in the public sector," Snider said. "These agreements make sure our department heads aren't exposed politically.

"I've been here for 2 1/2 years, and I haven't had to write up any of our department heads. There's nothing in their files. Each is performing at a high level."

Asked by council member John Blundy how he analyzes department heads' job performance, Snider said each department head has a specific job description.

"I review their performances every day," Snider said. "But I like to manage in an atmosphere of trust and confidence."

The employment agreements call for each department head to receive five months severance pay if they are fired without cause.

Snider and Police Chief Mike McCoy were the only city employees with employment agreements before the department heads joined them.

Snider and McCoy are the highest paid city employees. Snider will make $161,362 and McCoy will make $144,740 starting May 1, the beginning of the city's 2024-25 fiscal year.

Baxter will make $140,037, Carr will make $139,335, Rittenhouse will make $116,971 and Oliphant will make $111,925.

Washington attorney is city's first code enforcement hearing officer

Washington attorney J. Brian Heller was hired Monday by the council to be the city's first hearing officer for troublesome code enforcement cases. Heller also serves as the hearing officer for East Peoria and Tazewell County.

"This is long overdue," said council member Mike Brownfield. "We have spots in our town that need attention. It's good to take the burden of enforcement on these cases off city staff's plate."

Heller's employment agreement as Washington's hearing officer had a first reading Monday and will be up for council approval May 6. The agreement calls for him to be paid $150 her hour during his first year of service.

Great news: Catherine Street project cost is 10.1% lower than expected

Stark Excavating of Bloomington was awarded a contract Monday by the council for phase 1 of the Catherine Street reconstruction project. Stark was the lowest of four bidders at $1,565,768. The city's estimate for the project was $1,741,830, or 10.1% higher than Stark's low bid.

"We got more bids than I expected," Carr said. "We got a good contract. We budgeted $2 million for the work."

Catherine from Main Street to Elm Street will be reconstructed. Currently asphalt and chip seal, the road will be brick from Main to High Street and asphalt from High to Elm.

In addition to the new road surface, the project includes a new watermain, curb, gutter, sidewalk and sump drain lines, and sanitary sewer adjustments.

Rezoning requested for police evidence building site

A request by the Washington Police Department to rezone three city-owned parcels at 200 N. Wilmor Road from R-1 (single- and two-family residential) to C-1 (local retail) so it can build its new evidence storage facility on the Washington Fire Department campus had a first reading Monday.

City staff suggested the rezoning because C-1 allows "municipal, state or federal administrative or service buildings" as uses and is a better fit for the evidence building and fire station. The fire station is currently a legal non-conforming use for R-1.

Only 10 parcels are zoned C-1 in the city, including City Hall.

The police department's rezoning request will be up for council approval May 6. The evidence building is expected to be completed in April 2025. The site will include five parking spaces.

The city bought the parcels at 200 N. Wilmor, which total nearly four acres, during the 1992-93 fiscal year ahead of the construction of the fire station, which opened in 1995.

$41.4 million city budget approved for 2024-25

Council approved the city's 2024-25 fiscal year budget Monday. It's the largest budget in city history.

The $41.4 million spending plan is a nearly $6.6 million, or 18.9% increase, over the 2023-24 fiscal year budget.

Capital expenditures, mostly for infrastructure improvements on streets and utility distribution systems, are estimated to total about $22.9 million, or 55.4% of budget expenses. Personnel expenses are estimated to total about $9.8 million, or 23.8% of budget expenses.

Total city employment for the 2024-25 fiscal year will be 72.25 full-time equivalent. One full-time employee has been added -- a sergeant in the police department. About 46% of the city's workforce is engaged in public safety and about 43% is involved in public works.

As for budget revenue, the largest local generators are the 1% municipal sales tax (estimated $4 million for 2024-25), 1.25% home-rule sales tax (estimated $3.2 million for 2024-25), and .5% additional home-rule sales taxes for infrastructure and stormwater management (estimated $1.2 million each for 2024-25).

The budget includes spending an estimated $4 million from reserves, leaving a general fund balance of $13.5 million, which is 64% of budgeted expenditures. A minimum balance of 25% of budgeted expenditures is recommended.

The vote to approve the budget was 7-1, with Blundy casting the no vote. The city's fiscal year begins May 1.

Steel installation at downtown square restaurant project site a 'visible milestone'

In his regular report to the council, Oliphant noted that steel installation has started at the site of the new restaurant being built on the downtown square.

"While construction has been ongoing for a while there, seeing the vertical construction offers a more visible milestone," he said.

He also said applications are due May 29 for business improvement grants offered by the city. After being reviewed by staff, the applications will be presented to the council for discussion at its June 10 committee of the whole meeting.

A total of $300,000 will be available in the grant program during the 2024-25 fiscal year, which begins May 1.

"Several businesses have at least inquired about this program over the last few months," he said.

Council affirmed last week at its committee of the whole meeting that it will support a grant requested by Kristi Cape, owner of Countryside Banquet & Catering, to help fund a parking lot repair project.

The request was made before the current grant rules were put in place.

Cape will receive funding for 30% of the project with a $115,000 cap. The project has two phases, one costing an estimated $139,000 and the other costing an estimated $230,000.

Oliphant also reported that work should be completed soon on new stairs that replace the unsafe stairs that lead to the upstairs units at Cherry Tree Shopping Center, and city staff anticipates a building permit will be issued soon for a multi-unit commercial building on Cruger Road behind the Sleep Inn & Suites on North Cummings Lane.

3% pay increases approved for non-union city employees

Non-union Washington city employees, excluding department heads and including police sergeants, will receive a 3% pay increase for the 2024-25 fiscal year, which begins May 1. Police union and labor union contracts also call for a 3% pay hike in 2024-25.

Council approved the non-union pay increases Monday.

Police get bicentennial badges

Washington police officers will wear new badges next year that recognize the city's bicentennial. The badges will cost about $10,000.

Council was informed last week at its committee of the whole meeting that a line item for the badges was added to the police department's 2024-25 fiscal year budget.

Steve Stein is an award-winning news and sports writer and editor. Most recently, he covered Tazewell County communities for the Peoria Journal Star for 18 years.