DECATUR — The Decatur City Council members still undecided on the newest U.S. 51 and Ash Avenue rezoning proposal pushed city staff on Monday for any traffic studies or past traffic counts done for that area before they have to make a final decision at the next council meeting Jan. 2.

Deerfield-based developer GMX Real Estate, LLC is seeking permission to rezone 1.6 acres at the intersection for a shopping center that would include a Chipotle Mexican Grille. The area is located across the highway from Walmart, Walgreens and other high-volume retail stores, but it borders a residential neighborhood whose occupants are passionately opposed to the move. 

"We've gotten a lot of feedback from our citizens, and they've been very specific this time about where the problem areas are in the neighborhood," said City Councilwoman Lisa Gregory, referring to a similar zoning proposal for an Aldi store in 2015 that was rejected by the council. "We want to let them know that we hear what they're saying and we're going to take a look at them, and if there's a concern that we can remedy, then we want to do that."

Council members said they were getting many calls about the new rezoning proposal every day. The concerns center around the 30-mph zone on Ash Avenue, and semi-truck traffic taking the street as a reliable detour from busier roads.

While it's unlikely new traffic studies could be completed before the Jan. 2 vote, council members said the outpouring from residents justified a hard look at several potential fixes. Options they mentioned included lowering the speed limit on Ash Avenue, having police set up a mobile speed enforcement unit, install a three-way stop sign at Ash Avenue and Buckingham Drive and banning all truck traffic on the street between U.S. 51 and MacArthur Boulevard.

Requests for new stop signs or speed limit changes do not have to originate from council members, according to Interim Public Works Director Matt Newell. Residents can bring complaints to the city's Traffic and Parking Commission, which are then considered by the commission and then recommended to the city council.

City Manager Tim Gleason said city staff will consider possible action to take Tuesday, and present options to city council members before the Jan. 2 vote.

Grand Avenue warehouse cleanup almost finished

The century-old warehouse on East Grand Avenue was leveled by a fire nearly three years ago. The city took owner Robert Powell to court to force him to clean up the piles of charred rubble and debris, but Powell died in April 2016, and the city postponed the case.

Earlier this month, cleanup began after the city worked out a partnership with Springfield’s Operating Engineers Local 965. 

Eventually, "we'll seed it, give it a park-like setting, is what the goal is," Gleason said.

The city does not own the land but has placed liens on the property, so the owner must pay a debt before the city allows it to be sold.

The warehouse was not insured at the time of the fire and did not have fire sprinklers. Gleason said staff attorneys advised that the city cannot mandate commercial properties to purchase insurance. 

City manager pay bump

Council members approved, 5-2, a measure to extend an annual cost-of-living salary increase to Gleason. The salary adjustment was not included in his contract, but is extended to all other city department heads, who do not belong to a union.

Gleason's annual salary is $162,843, according to city documents. Officials did not say how much the cost-of-living increase would be, and the percentage did not appear in documents given to the council.

Council members rejected Councilman David Horn's request to delay the vote until council members had completed the city manager's performance review, which is scheduled for January. Councilman Bill Faber also voted against the pay increase. 

Gleason will be entering his third year as city manager in March.

Property tax levy approved

Council members unanimously approved a property tax levy of $13.87 million for the coming year. The amount is close to the 2017 levy.

Although they approved a budget earlier this month that contains a $3.2 million deficit, council members have balked at raising property taxes. Instead, they have said they will hope that state lawmakers would reverse the measures, and also could consider cuts to various programs in the coming year. 

Decatur is among municipalities across the state that were hurt by Illinois lawmakers, who earlier this year reduced local governments' share of state income tax by 10 percent and allowed the state to collect a 2 percent fee to manage local sales taxes. That means a loss of $1.4 million from last year for Decatur, a city already struggling with declining sales tax proceeds and property values. 

City still missing state money for buses

Operational dysfunction at the state level continue to add headaches to city services, this time in the form of a missing grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation for Decatur Public Transit. Due in July, city officials still don't know when to expect a $10 million grant for the city's buses.

To fill the gap, council members approved a temporary transfer from the city's water fund to be reimbursed once the IDOT grant is received.

tlisi@herald-review.com | (217) 421-6949

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Staff Writer

Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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