DECATUR — After downtown business owners balked at city enforcement of a ban on sandwich board-style signs on sidewalks near their storefronts last summer, the city council voted 4-2 to change the city code to allow them.
"I have really enjoyed the signs that the businesses have downtown," said Councilwoman Lisa Gregory, who voted in favor of the change. "I think it adds to the personality to the downtown and makes it more inviting."
While city council members sailed through a unanimous vote on a loan agreement from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for $7.9 million to upgrade and repair sewer lines in the north end of the city, the issue of granting a business permit for signs on downtown sidewalks carried the weight of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
Gregory acknowledged in her remarks that since the city cannot regulate speech, allowing the signs could render city officials helpless if a business owner decided to display something offensive or lewd.
That risk caused Councilman David Horn to vote against the provision.
"The idea of merchants being able to advertise their products in public walkways is something that in theory I'm supportive of," Horn said after the meeting. But the signs "could be misused in ways that would result in political statements, socially divisive statements or racially insensitive statements, and once signs are permitted on public sidewalks, at that point in time it will be very difficult for the city to reverse its decision."
The other three "yes" votes, Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe and councilmen Pat McDaniel and Chuck Kuhle, countered that private businesses are already allowed to display whatever they want on their window fronts.
"They could do exactly (the same thing) now, without this ordinance changing," Moore Wolfe said.
The new city code language now allows any downtown business to pay $25 for a city permit to show one sidewalk sign in front of their business. The sign must be no bigger than six square feet in size, no taller than four feet, cannot have lights and can only be displayed between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
In the 6-0 vote that approved the $7.9 million loan agreement with the IEPA, taxpayers would pay back the loan in annual installments of $474,800 for 20 years with an expected 1.84 percent in interest for the work on the north side sewer main.
"This has been a priority of mine since I ran for city council, because sewers should not be backing up in anybody's basement," Moore Wolfe said after the meeting. "But from a preventative standpoint, they're not going to last forever, we knew we had to fix them."
The move is part of a years-long effort by the city to shore up its aging sewer system — an effort that became more urgent in 2012, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an order to the city after finding chronic backup problems that were leading to flooded basements and overflow in some parts of the city.
Public Works Director Matt Newell said Monday the hope is all the work under order by the EPA will fall within $70 million and finish within 10 years.
The $7.9 million work will repair one of four large sewer mains in the city that receives lines from thousands of homes and businesses. The other three have already undergone repairs, mostly recently the 7th Ward sewer, which snakes from the neighborhoods surrounding Decatur Memorial Hospital down through the West End. Fortifications to the 7th ward sewer finished this year, according to the city documents provided to the city council.
To fund the extensive work, council members in 2016 approved step increases in sewer rates until 2022, when property owners will pay $1.55 per 100 cubic feet of water used, or about 750 gallons. This year, the rate was set at $1.24 per 100 cubic feet, and it will increase to $1.33 in 2019.
"The key element was the revenue to do it," McDaniel said. "Nobody wants to raise fees, but it's made a difference in peoples' lives so their homes don't get flooded."
According to a list of prior action the council has taken since 2008 related to the city's sewer system that was included in Monday's city council agenda, $30.9 million has already been spent on engineering plans, studies and construction.
The rehabilitation of the northside sewer main, known by the city as the McKinley Avenue sewer, marks the last project on the docket that will involve fortifying one of the city's large-diameter mainline sewers. Newell said the remaining work the city needs to accomplish to meet the EPA order will involve updating sewer lines that go into residential homes and businesses, something he said will be done on a more piece-by-piece basis.
City staff expect to open bids for the work by April, and the work to be completed by the summer of 2020.
"This is city government," Moore Wolfe said. "It's not sexy, it's not pretty, it's sewers."