Kankakee Streets

Kankakee's public works department, which maintains streets, is under the umbrella of the environmental services utility department. 

KANKAKEE — Kankakee’s city government doesn’t spend one dime of sales or property taxes on its public works department.

It pays for that department through sewer and garbage fees. Public works operates under the city’s utilities department.

The 2010 merger of public works into the Environmental Services Utility department was pushed by then-Utilities Director Richard Simms, who is now under federal investigation related to his government jobs.

That combination was unusual. Most municipalities, including Bradley, Bourbonnais and Manteno, keep their public works departments separate. They are primarily financed by their towns’ general funds, which receive property and sales taxes.

In Kankakee, public works spending is budgeted at $3.2 million this fiscal year, which started May 1.

Fees for the private garbage service cover much of the public works expenditures. Under this year’s budget, the city is expected to collect $2.9 million in garbage fees on behalf of Republic Services, the private garbage hauler. It will pay an estimated $1.8 million of that money to Republic, leaving the city $1.1 million to spend on public works.

In 2010, the City Council approved putting public works under the utilities department’s umbrella. At the time, officials said this would clear the way for the city to be its own garbage hauler starting the next year, with officials saying the city could do it cheaper than private companies. They noted public works employees were going down every city alley weekly anyway.

“It only makes sense that we take over this service,” then-Mayor Nina Epstein said.

Nina Epstein Public Works

Former Kankakee Mayor Nina Epstein 

Just a few months later, the city abandoned that plan when officials learned they could find less expensive options on the private market. So the city continued to contract with a private hauler. Yet public works remained under the utilities department.

‘UTILITIES A BETTER FIT’

In a recent interview, Epstein said it was a good move to keep public works under utilities.

“Cities can structure their departments any way they choose. We looked at all the departments at the time. We were able to identify multiple (public works) functions that benefited the sewer system,” Epstein said. “Why not relieve the public works department from being funded by the general fund? Utilities are a better fit. There is a revenue stream.”

Shifting the burden of public works to the sewer and garbage funds means lower property tax bills. But unlike property taxes, homeowners cannot deduct the added amount to their sewer and solid waste bills from their federal income taxes.

Epstein noted the federal tax break benefits homeowners, not renters. She said Kankakee has a relatively low homeownership rate. According to the latest census figures, the homeownership rate is slightly less than half in Kankakee, while it is more than two-thirds countywide.

Utility fees, Epstein said, are spread over a greater base of people.

‘IT’S VERY FLEXIBLE’

John Simon, an accounting professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, said it was “unusual” for self-supporting funds such as sewer and garbage to support public works, which is normally a general fund function.

“However, the way government works, it’s very flexible. If there’s some kind of enabling legislation that allows that to happen, then it’s acceptable,” Simon said. “If they did say that some of the revenues are being used for street maintenance and public works and so on, I think it’s OK. But again, it’s not something I would normally expect to find.”

Kankakee enacted the enabling legislation.

Asked about the arrangement, city Comptroller Elizabeth Kubal said it was decided that many public works services were interconnected with utilities.

“Specifically, the primary duties that the [public works department] performs regarding the responsibility of all street and alley maintenance directly impacts the storm sewer system,” Kubal said in an email.

The assistant superintendent of public works reports to the superintendent of the Environmental Services Utility department, she said.

For more than a quarter century, Simms was the utilities superintendent. When he retired in 2018, he was credited with bringing utilities and public works under one roof.

Simms was also the executive director of the regional sewer plant, known as the Kankakee River Metropolitan Agency. He retired there at the same time.

In his last years, Simms received upwards of $1.4 million from the city and KRMA for creating software that reportedly does not work. That led to the federal investigation.

A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.

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