Lawsuit over discolored, smelly water drives up certain Sycamore city costs

City overall remains below budget

Fourth Ward Alderwoman Virginia Sherrod looks at fellow 4th ward Alderman Ben Bumpus, as he talks during a Sycamore City Council meeting on May 20, 2024.

SYCAMORE – Although the city of Sycamore so far is operating under budget, a lawsuit settled last year has led to higher than expected costs in some areas, city officials said.

From Jan. 1 to April 30, the Mayor and City Council program – the portion of the budget out of which the mayor and council members, as well as some other costs, are paid – has cost the city $83,982, 33.8% higher than expected, according to a recent budget update prepared by Finance Director Kristian Dominguez.

In the update, which was addressed to Sycamore Mayor Steve Braser, City Manager Michael Hall and the Sycamore City Council, Dominguez wrote that a lawsuit settled in early 2023 caused the program to be over budget because of legal services.

The lawsuit was filed after residents in fall 2020 began protesting what they described as the discolored, foul-smelling water coming out of their homes’ taps, saying they refused to use it. Those complaints soon turned into a larger fear that high levels of toxic lead, which can cause severe health problems, was prevalent in city water.

In 2023, the city of Sycamore agreed to settle a $6 million class-action lawsuit filed by area residents that alleged the city was negligent in maintaining its water quality, and agreed to steer millions of dollars toward infrastructure and to increase water testing, records show.

The settlement did not find the city of Sycamore liable for any wrongdoing, and the city has maintained that Sycamore water is and was safe to drink. The city will be required to pay an average of $1.2 million toward water quality improvements, however.

Overall, the city’s expenses for the year have come in under budget.

The Public Works Department has spent $749,544, or 46.7%, less than what was expected by the end of April, according to city documents. Those savings, as well as others worth more than $300,000 across six different departments, means the city has spent $965,379 less than officials had expected to by the end of April.

The city has not yet received money from property tax collection – the first disbursement will come in June – but when factoring in all revenue sources, the city’s expected revenue is $259,072 less than what was expected at this point in the year, according to city documents.

“Ultimately, in fund balancing you look at the bottom line,” Hall said. “You don’t look at line items particularly. Those are guidelines. Budgets are guidelines.”

During Monday’s City Council meeting, 4th Ward Alderman Ben Bumpus sought to understand what he should do as an elected official to make sure expenses that have come in over budget, or revenues that haven’t been as large as expected, are addressed.

Bumpus said he thinks it’s his obligation as a city alderperson to ask questions about the budget during City Council meetings.

“We should talk about [the budget] and collectively understand when we’re over, when we’re under,” Bumpus said. “And so there’s definitely an element of, ‘Yep, there’s probably details we can do offline,’ but I’d like to continue pursuing how we can overall understand the numbers as an audience.”

Hall told him that nuanced questions about the budget should be answered in a workshop, not a City Council meeting, depending on the agenda.

Bumpus refuted that take.

“I know that we do approve spending of the city’s money every meeting, so I think to some degree we are obligated in this forum to make sure we’re clear on the spending and how we’re trending,” Bumpus said.

Hall said the city hasn’t gone over budget in decades, and although an individual line item may become more expensive than officials had estimated, the city is not expected to go over budget for the fiscal year.

“I can tell you right now, in the last 20 years in Sycamore – I haven’t been here for 20 years – we have always come under budget,” Hall said. “Never have they come over budget, and maybe that’s [because of] some of the people that have been here for awhile.”

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