GENEVA – A routine farm lease agreement turned into a split vote requiring the mayor to break a tie at Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.
Ultimately the vote with 6-5 with Mayor Kevin Burns voting, and a two-year farm lease with Pitstick Farms of Maple Park for 2020 and 2021 crop season was recommended for approval.
The 245 acres the city owns was put out for bid and Pitstick Farms was the only one responding, officials said. The acreage is part of the Prairie Green Preserve. Pitstick Farms has leased this land for farming since 2004, officials said.
The cash rent is $261 per tillable acre for both seasons.
Third Ward Alderman Dean Kilburg objected to it being a two-year agreement because it is a commodity – that is, an agricultural product – if there was a drought in one of those years.
“If we had a drought this summer, and all of a sudden corn prices would go from $3.50 a bushel to $8 a bushel like it did about five or six years ago, our rental property would be worth a lot more to farmers in the area than it would be, for instance, this year,” Kilburg said. “What is the benefit to the city of Geneva to enter into a two-year lease when a commodity is involved?”
Community Development Director David DeGroot said the city is allowed to enter into a two-year lease as a maximum.
“That’s what we’ve historically done,” DeGroot said.
“Historically – maybe that’s not the right approach,” Kilburg said. “I think what we’re doing is, we’re locking ourselves into something that ultimately could generate a lot of revenue for the city.”
Kilburg said a one-year lease would give city staff time to look into federal subsidies for farmland such as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program or the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement Initiative for that acreage, in which the city would get money for not tilling that farmland.
“I think we should step back and take another look at this,” Kilburg said.
Before Burns voted to break the tie, he said everything Kilburg recommended requires a policy discussion – which they have not had.
“We should not look at the success of the program simply by the revenue generated. Because if we do nothing with the 245 acres, in terms of a lease, the revenue is zero,” Burns said. “I think it’s – respectfully –extraordinarily unfair to Mr. Pitstick and his family, who have, for well over a decade and a half, worked with us in good faith, to farm the land that nobody else wants to farm.”
Burns said if officials want to return that farmland to its natural state, the issue should be discussed in an overall strategic plan for the 580-acre Prairie Green Preserve.
“If that’s a discussion for a future date, that’s great. We can have that discussion,” Burns said. “But for now to pull the rug out from under the Pitsticks and quite frankly, change course on a dime, I think is inappropriate. I vote yes.”
Kilburg said if the city entered into one of the federal or state programs for that land, it would provide revenue.
But Burns countered that it requires significant research and investigation by staff with no guarantee that the city would qualify for those programs.
“I don’t know how, at the 11th hour, again for 16 consecutive years, you say to the one bidder, ‘It’s been a slice, but no more. We’re changing direction,’ without first having a policy discussion,” Burns said.
Those voting in favor of recommending the two-year lease agreement were 1st Ward Alderman Michael Bruno, 2nd Ward Aldermen Richard Marks and Michael Clements, and 5th Ward Aldermen Craig Maladra and Robert Swanson.
Those voting against the recommendation were Kilburg, 1st Ward Alderman Tara Burghart, 3rd Ward Alderman Becky Hruby and 4th Ward Aldermen Jeanne McGowan and Gabriel Kaven.
The City Council will take final action.