DIXON – When the Riverfront Commission was created, there was an unwritten understanding that projects and maintenance would be paid for without using city money.
But the commissioner who voiced that understanding no longer is a city official, and riverfront revenue has been dwindling.
So much so that the commission appears poised to ask the city for financial help.
It may not be an easy request.
Commissioner Dennis Considine said the riverfront group is “swimming in their own soup.”
He hopes the council thinks twice if the riverfront group comes calling.
“That is why the commission is in existence, to take responsibility for the riverfront,” Considine said. “I think the members are well-intended, great community people that are dedicated, but they’ve been at it so long they can’t see the forest for the trees here.”
He said it would be “foolish to throw money to the commission to hire someone to do the same work” that “well-tuned” city departments could be doing instead.
But Dixon’s mayor said he is open to the city giving money to the riverfront cause.
“This is city property,” Riverfront Commission member John Varga said during a meeting Tuesday.
“Really, the city should be maintaining it. It’s about time they step up to the plate. What we have going here is not self-sustaining.”
The commission on Tuesday did not take any action or make a formal request. But members did suggest the Dixon City Council help fund its maintenance budget.
Riverfront Chairman Larry Reed speculated the commission must raise an additional $6,000 beyond projected amenity sales just to break even in its maintenance budget for 2013. That sparked Varga to suggest asking the city for $25,000 to cover all maintenance and operation expenses.
The Riverfront bylaws state the purpose of the organization is; “To promote, encourage and foster development, establishment and expansion of the riverfront ... by doing all things necessary to improve, redevelop, revitalize, aid and assist the City of Dixon to further the common civic good and general welfare.”
Regardless, Reed said the commission must find another revenue stream.
He estimates $27,600 will be needed to operate and maintain Heritage Crossing, including the proposed $600 per month raise for Executive Manager Kay Miller that awaits City Council approval Monday.
Amenities, such as commemorative pavers, benches and cafe tables brought in a combined $36,821 in 2010. Those sales have since decreased to $9,725 in 2010 and to $11,674 in 2011, making it harder for the commission to break even.
“If you’ve already bought something, or made your donation with one of these benches or pavers, that’s likely it, you aren’t going to keep buying,” Varga said. “This is not a sustaining revenue.”
In 2011, the Riverfront’s maintenance fund lost about $9,500, with $30,500 in revenue and nearly $40,000 in expenditures. This year, the maintenance fund has brought in about $6,800 more than has been spent.
“I don’t know what that revenue stream is,” Reed said. “But I ask, why should the Riverfront be treated any differently than any other city street or property? The Riverfront is city-owned, but it is maintained in a completely different way.”
Mayor Jim Burke agrees, stating the overall responsibility for Heritage Crossing lies with the city since it owns the property.
“It’s too valuable to let go to pot,” Burke said, adding that the Mumford & Sons concert in August would not have been possible without the Riverfront and the commission’s work. “I would not be opposed to working something out with [the commission].”
Burke said the idea was for the commission to operate self-sufficiently, but neither the City Council nor the commission made a resolution to not utilize city funds.
“That notion was started by a former commissioner,” Burke said, referring to Roy Bridgeman. The former finance commissioner said he would find “other means” to pay back a bond before letting the burden fall to taxpayers, even if the Riverfront Commission didn’t manage to raise the necessary funds.
In other words, the city already has helped with a roughly $1.8 million bond during construction with an understanding the commission would raise the funds to pay it back. Construction was paid for by a $2.3 million federal grant, $754,985 in pledges and $819,684 in motor fuel tax funds.
Payments have been made by the commission, Reed said, but it is unclear where that debt stands in the shuffle of the Rita Crundwell scandal, according to Finance Director Paula Meyer, who still is sorting out the city’s finances after it was discovered the former comptroller stole more than $53 million in city funds over two decades.
Either way, there’s more than $1 million of debt weighing on a commission struggling to break even with its current operations and maintenance.
Commissioner Jeff Kuhn said he is studying the commission’s history before he makes up his mind on the matter, and Commissioner David Blackburn does not want to comment on the issue until the Riverfront Commission makes a formal move.
Commissioner Colleen Brechon-Vancil, however, is not surprised it’s come to this.
“Given how it was going, I’m not shocked,” she said. “I’m disappointed there’s a chance it won’t be self-sufficient, but reality trumps that. I have some thoughts, but I’m going to keep an open mind and listen to what they have to say.”
Considine, who has attended the Riverfront Commission’s past two meetings, suggested the group needs to take a new approach.
“I think we need to track how much they say they borrowed with how much has been paid,” Considine said. “Then I don’t think paying an executive director X amount of money a month when you have no extra cash flow, and she’s not producing the money she’s getting out of her salary when there are two willing volunteers, is the wisest move.”
Considine also encouraged the group to utilize two board vacancies to bring in a “fresher, aggressive” membership.
Miller said she believes the City Council should help fund the Riverfront, because “it belongs to the city,” but said she can raise the $6,000 that is said to be needed for the group to break even.
That number projected by Reed also assumes the commission will sell four benches, three cafe tables, 46 pavers, four tent rentals and five pavilion rentals. That’s double the paver sales from last year and triple the sales for tables.
“It’s feasible,” Miller said. “I have some ideas, including a bicycle poker run type thing that could bring in nice revenue. I think I can raise that money. I don’t think the $1 million debt is feasible, though.”