ROCHELLE — The City of Rochelle’s 2021 included working to green light the demolition of Hickory Grove, utility projects including a new substation and water/water reclamation upgrades, working to update its strategic plan and Citizens Academy, a new program to inform residents about the city’s inner workings.
Rochelle City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh spoke with the News-Leader on Dec. 15 and reflected on the city’s 2021.
“Those are just a few of the things,” Fiegenschuh said. “But it's been a great year and I'm super happy with my staff. I have a great staff. Our mayor and council have provided great leadership and I couldn't be prouder to be part of the organization."
Before a demolition contract for Hickory Grove was approved by the city council at its final meeting in December, the city worked during 2021 on an easement agreement with the owner of the Comfort Inn next to the building to properly separate the properties.
The city also successfully worked on getting a Rebuild Illinois Grant to cover the project.
“It's basically been a two-year process, so we're super excited that we're able to finalize it at our last meeting of the year,” Fiegenschuh said. “And then the timeframe is going to be pretty condensed. They're talking about starting in January and we could have that site completely cleared off and prepped for some kind of development in April or May.”
Fiegenschuh said overall, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic did “put a damper” on the year that was, but the city is still in “very good shape” financially. Its cash fund balance has increased each of the past four years. The shape of the city’s finances are allowing it to reinvest back into its utility infrastructure.
In May, the city broke ground on a new $13.8 million electrical substation project at 1600 Ritchie Ct., which will be Rochelle Municipal Utilities’ third. The substation will increase reliability for nearby industry and reduce reliance on Rochelle’s Caron Road substation.
“And when that's done in April or May 2022, we’ll be moving over to the next substation on Centerpoint Drive up by MightyVine,” Fiegenschuh said. “[RMU Superintendent of Electric Operations Blake Toliver] has brought a lot of issues to my attention that have not been addressed for years on the electric distribution side. I'm very happy with the work he's done to bring all those things to my attention so we can get them before the mayor and city council and funded. We have a lot of distribution projects that we've started this year that I'm happy about.”
Infrastructure upgrades have also been made in RMU’s water and water reclamation departments. In June, the city held a ribbon cutting ceremony after completing a $7 million wastewater plant improvement project that included upgrading headworks equipment, converting aeration to biological phosphorus removal, upgrading the anaerobic lagoon, adding an office administration building and the conversion of the plant’s lab.
Another project Fiegenschuh mentioned as a positive for the city in 2021 was Citizens Academy, a 10-week program that offered the opportunity for residents to learn about the city and its various departments. Participants went behind the scenes to learn how the city works through hands-on activities, facility tours and more during the fall.
“I thought it went very well,” Fiegenschuh said. “I know a lot of people were happy with it. We hope to do it every year. Big kudos to them for organizing it and my staff for being there every week to give tours and answer questions and do all those things.”
The city manager said the city’s work in 2021 all relates back to the strategic plan the mayor and city council approved in 2018, with priorities being reinvesting in infrastructure and improving the quality of life for Rochelle residents.
Due to having a new mayor and two new council members since 2018, the city is working to update that strategic plan and hopes to finalize it in January.
Fiegenschuh said he doesn’t believe there were many things that didn’t go to plan for the city in 2021. One thing he said was sort of a surprise was the issue of the Prairie State Energy Campus, which the city has $150 million in debt with until 2042.
Work on a state energy bill threatened to close the coal plant over the summer and a bill eventually was signed in September that requires it to be carbon-free by 2045, either by going offline or installing sequestration technology. By 2035, the plant must cut emissions by 45 percent. If it doesn’t meet that goal by the end of 2035, the power plant will have until June 30, 2038 to either retire a portion of carbon-emitting units or meet the decarbonization goal some other way.
“I think we got the best deal we could get,” Fiegenschuh said. “We have an obligation under the law to start to meet those timelines and as a utility and we’re going to start working on how we’re going to do that where it's not cost prohibitive for our ratepayers."