HEBRON – The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency wants to know whether Hebron officials spent funds that should have been earmarked for the village's sewer plant.
Village President John Jacobson for months has claimed that under previous leadership, the village took money from the sewer fund and put it into the general fund. The move broke the village's ordinance and contributed to the dire financial status of the small town just south of the Wisconsin border, its troubled leader says.
The village collected as much as $1.4 million in fees from developers that should have gone to upkeep and maintenance of the plant, and to paying back the $4.5 million loan to the IEPA on the plant, Jacobson said after the the July meeting of the Village Board.
"They kept that," he said.
IEPA officials have requested financial audits to show the accounts' activity over the last several years, IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said.
The audits will serve a dual purpose, as IEPA officials look to build a clearer picture of the village's financial outlook. The two sides are in talks to devise a plan to pay back the loan without bankrupting the village.
"Our last contact from them was the end of June, and they were just recontacted again last week seeking audited financials," Biggs said. "It's been a slow progression as we continue to work with village officials to get the additional information."
The plant has been a source of continuous headaches for Hebron's residents.
In 2005, with housing developments lined up to at least double the village's population, officials opted to build a new wastewater treatment plant rather than spend about $2 million to renovate the old one. The new plant was to allow Hebron to grow, officials said, and the loan was structured so that the village could pay only interest for the first five years.
But when the housing bust hit and development never came, the full burden of the loan fell on existing residents. The IEPA has granted extensions on the original five years of interest-only payments, but the agency has applied increasing pressure on the village to come up with a plan to start paying down the principal.
"I have no specifics on how they would meet their loan obligation at this point," Biggs said. "It would be too early to speculate on that. We are trying to get a grasp on the finances of the village and take steps from there."
Jacobson said a recent move to lay off one of two full-time police officers is a step toward getting the village's finances in order.
The sewer plant this year has garnered attention for reasons beyond the financial strain it puts on the village. In April, Satrina Yates, the plant's certified operator since it was built, quit her job with the village. She told the Northwest Herald that Jacobson had fostered an unsafe atmosphere and allowed a younger employee free rein at the plant.
Hebron has since hired Jason Treat, the supervisor of wastewater operations in Antioch, to serve as the plant's certified operator. His contract requires that he visits the plant just once a week – a stipulation about which IEPA officials initially raised questions, according to emails obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Biggs said that the IEPA is satisfied with Treat's involvement, and that he's been in daily communication with Hebron staff about the plant.
Treat made $1,000 a month during his first two months with Hebron, when he was in a consultant role. He now makes $500 a month, Jacobson said.