The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce hosted a candidate debate for those running for alderman and mayor last Wednesday night. Chamber Trustee Mike Cripe moderated.
Eric Fisher Publisher
There was little debate between the four candidates running for Wilmington mayor Wednesday when they squared off before at near-capacity crowd at city hall.
Mayor Marty Orr seeks re-election April 9 over opponents Darla Neises, Roy Strong and Russ Gilmour. Candidates were given questions in advance of the forum and the opportunity to comment on seven topics chosen by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. Moderator Mike Cripe asked the seven prepared questions, plus seven others submitted from the audience during the 90-minute time limit.
Each opened by stating why they want to be mayor.
Neises, first on the ballot, said that as a four-year alderman she understands that she serves the people and wants to further serve as mayor pledging to do the best that she can.
Orr, eight years as an alderman and 14 years as the Catfish Days chairman, said his past four years as mayor were through some tough times and "we're about to turn the corner" and he wants to continue to serve.
Gilmour, an eight-year alderman and lifelong resident, said he cares about the town and believes he can offer a lot to the city as mayor.
Strong, a three-term alderman who lost re-election as mayor to Orr, said, "So many people came up to me and asked me to run again," Strong said. "They're saying things are such a mess that you have to straighten things out and try to get things on the right track..."
People say the city's broke. What's your solution?
Strong thinks the city has spent money on "silly things," citing the purchase of five houses at the entrance to the South Island Park by Openlands with the future promise to sell them to the city and money spent on frivolous lawsuits.
Gilmour said, "There isn't going to be any growth in this town until we do something with the building and tap-on fees. If I'm elected mayor, these fees will be dropped for four years to get some people to come into this town." Gilmour, who is retired, said he would go to Springfield to talk to people.
Orr stated the city is not broke, noting that every city across the country is experiencing tough times. He said some city reserves were spent on projects that brought growth including the annexation of Ridgeport Logistics. "When I took over, Ridgeport was on its way to going to Diamond. We worked hard to get them back. Through industrial and commercial growth, which is where we're headed, I think we're on the right track."
Neises said the city is not broke but continues to be an operations-only budget "that's balanced year after year by the laying off of city employees to make up the budget gap." Neises said, "The word broke - it may be in our future." Her goal would be to stop spending. "As mayor I would look into ways to cut costs, review all contracts, go through the budget line-by- line, and every bill, if that's what it takes."
The city is embroiled in a lawsuit over severance pay. Has a mistake been made?
Orr noted it occurred after the election four years ago. The past council changed the contracts of two employees who had no severance packages, giving them a year's worth of severance. "Both publicly stated they had no intention of suing the city over the back wages, it was more of a gesture on the part of the outgoing administration. That wasn't the case and a lawsuit was filed."
The judge ruled the year-long severances were without merit and didn't even acknowledge the severance package. However, they chose to give them two- and three-month severance from the old contract which had no severance in it, Orr said. The council chose to appeal that decision. "Currently, we spent about $30,000 in attorney's fees. "Was it the right thing to do. I think it was. I don't think anyone should get money for not doing the tasks they've been given to do."
Neises said mistakes have been made. "The focus needs to be on what can be done in the future. As mayor I will concentrate on mediation instead of mitigation. Problems can often be solved with communication. By negotiating a deal that may not make both parties completely happy, we can save relationships and keep the costs down."
Gilmour, who voted for the severance as an outgoing alderman, said that after being in litigation for four years, the city should settle. "Why do we have to keep hiring more lawyers? Let's get this over with. You want to point the finger - that's not the way to solve anything. I can tell you how it happened, but I'm not going to. It's immaterial. It's done, over with, let's settle it."
Strong, who was the outgoing mayor, said the severance vote was brought up by the aldermen and passed. "The people involved didn't want the money. They tried to negotiate with the city to not take a year's salary. The city wouldn't negotiate with them and then the judge declared on the administrator's case that the mayor had fired her and she was eligible for two months and the former chief got three months." He said the legal fees, which had climbed as high as the severance pay, made the city fight to avoid having to pay them. "It's out of hand and a silly lawsuit so that's where it's at," Strong said.
The city just increased water and sewer rates. Do you think we're on the right track with our water and sewer rates and fees or should we sell the water and sewer plants?
Gilmour said, "For God's sake, never, no." If you out-source this water plant to someone, whether it be a American or not, you don't think they're going to keep our people, do you? They're not. They're going to lay them all off. They can't afford them. What's to say they're going to come in here and raise our water rates again? It's the worse thing we could ever do - to out-source the water and sewer plant and lose all control all together.
Strong thought the council agreed that you can't sell the water and sewer plants. He said that had the council decided to sell the plants the city would lose its bonding power. "We couldn't get bonds for anything so to me it's silly to even think about it. I don't know why it came up or who brought it up in the council. I'm not going to point the finger, but don't do it, can't do it."
Neises said no, absolute not.
Orr said aldermen did everything possible to avoid raising water and sewer rates, including looking at the option of selling the plants. As part of their due diligence to avoid raising rates, the city brought in professional services to create a rate structure over several years to get on track to pay a sewer plant loan and to build up a reserve. "As we continue to grow, the benefit for the City of Wilmington is we're going to see a reduction in water and sewer rates. When we get those high industrial businesses such as produce and cold storage, they're naturally high water users, using 800 to a million gallons of water a day which would have a dramatic positive impact on what we pay as residents because they would absorb a lot of the cost of what we're paying now, based on growth.
You can't buy a new house in Wilmington. Should the city be progressive to attract new residential growth?
Neises: "Yes, residential growth is important to all of us. When residents move into the city of Wilmington they help share the cost for all of which in turn helps lower some of the burden."
Orr: A developer shouldn't have to pay impact and tap-on fees until just before a house is occupied. Right now fees for schools, the city, the parks are paid up front, placing a big burden on developers. "So we could back load those type of fees as an incentive for residential growth."
Strong: Wilmington should be like Manhattan, IL and have no fees for a new house. "So to me you're going to have to cut the fees. Today, we have a lot of empty houses for sale. I wonder why. How do you expect people to pay a high water and sewer bill? So until we get that down, which I think I can as mayor, I don't think anyone else can but I think I can."
Gilmour: "We need to be very progressive and we also need to get the schools involved because it's going to affect the schools. If we build new houses, it's going to bring new kids and we need to watch what we do there. It has to be controlled. If I'm elected we'll do a 5-year moratorium on all fees and we will control growth."
` Five properties on Bridge Street have been purchased by Openlands and are being held for future purchase by the city. What is your opinion of this purchase?
Strong thinks it was silly to buy five houses, losing an estimated $10,000 off the tax rolls, just to tear them down. "When you're struggling with your budget and you're tearing houses down, I don't see that. The park board has some issues but that can be straightened out. We should work on the dam and the safety issue and not worry about tearing houses down."
Gilmour agreed with Strong. "We're taking five houses off the tax rolls. Who's going to pay for those taxes we're losing? The people who are living here. Their taxes are going to be increased. You can't just do that. If you take the five houses off there's still going to be trailers behind them. That's not a very pretty site. We need more jobs, not more demolition."
Orr said people from the community came to him, saying the houses were in disrepair and talked about the city possibly acquiring the properties. "But we really didn't have the money to do so. So we reached out to Openlands which has a program to buy property and over time the city can take it back. I think it's just the first step. It would be no greater assets than to have a nice entryway into those islands as you approach them. It's a long-term process that I think will benefit the city for years to come."
Neises sees both sides, with expansion of the city-owned parks and to beautify the entrance of the South Island, including a bike trail. She noted that if the grants are not obtained the city could be looking at upwards to $500,000. "So, all the parks are owned by the city but belong to the people. What happens to them is a decision that should be made by the people. As mayor I will do diligence in following up with Openlands to move this project along and offer many opportunities for the citizens to give their input."
What should be Wilmington's next priority?
Orr said growth, especially from an industrial and commercial standpoint. A big challenge with growth will come from the Illiana Expressway. "We have to make sure that those people who are impacted by the Illiana are taken care of and any type of property, whether it be youth recreational property, is negotiated. Our future growth, from a commercial or residential standpoint, is going to be from the east, along that Peotone corridor if that Illiana Tollway does come."
Neises said business and commercial growth, and new annexation. "In order to do that a priority should be coming together for the common good. Wilmington's history is just amazing. Good people with good ideas coming together with an attitude of let's get it done."
Gilmour said growth including annexation of the Lorenzo Road truck stop to get that motor field tax into the city. "I know there were several outfits trying to put a truck stop there. I don't know if they're still interested or not."
Strong said raise money by forming a water district in southern Will County to sell river water to surrounding towns. It would bring job stability to the present employees while offsetting costs. Also transfer of ownership of the dam to the state before another lawsuit is filed from a drowning. He said bringing water and sewer rates down and getting rid of the fees is also important.
"As far as growth, I don't agree a lot. Housing needs to be controlled a little bit better. When we had big growth a few years ago, lots of towns did things they wish they hadn't done. Even today, I think I would change the Kahler Road subdivision that was going to go up there on Butcher Lane. If it was there now, Kahler Road would be a mess (by the high school). Housing, take a better look before a new subdivision comes to town. Some ones are good, but big ones - I don't know if we need them."
What should we do about the Illiana Expressway project through Wilmington?
Gilmour is in favor of it but not the final route that's been chosen. He'd prefer it went west along New River Road but doubts there will be funding anytime soon to build it. I think it's good, but not to take people's lives away from them. There are a lot of alternative routes they could take."
Strong has never been in favor if it. "I don't think we had a choice, it probably would've come this way no matter what we did." He said the city should push for an exit at Chicago Road, not Route 53, so truck traffic would avoid coming through Wilmington.
Neises supported the Illiana in 2010 as a means to bring much needed construction jobs to the region. Now she is concerned about the loss of tax revenue and population - air population, noise population, light population, rubbish and thinks every city official available should be at the planning table working towards a way to minimize the impact of the Illiana. "I have written a letter of opposition of the current route and have attended all the public meetings making our concerns known. As mayor I will continue to advocate for you."
Orr: "As a council, we supported the Illiana based on what it could do to help what it was destine to do - to alleviate truck traffic on local roads. When they picked the current B3 route, which they've signed off on the 3-tier program, it wasn't favorable because they gave no consideration to the River Road interchange. My biggest concern is that it's going over the top of my house too, so it's a personal thing, and the impact it's going to have on us. But it will bring growth and I'm hoping it will alleviate truck traffic in town."
Questions from the audience touched on should liquor licenses be restricted, how to improve leadership at the police department, how to improve the conditions of roads in town, hiring an outside building inspector and how can the city work to make the city more appealing downtown.
On liquor licenses Strong won't support more, especially where gas is sold, noting that the idea that people were driving to Braidwood to buy cheap beer and wine was silly. Gilmour said the city has enough liquor stores. Orr, in his closing statement, commented that his approval of additional liquor licenses to accommodate Berkot's was about giving local residents a choice.
On improving police leadership, Orr said leadership is just fine, noting that personal and professional issues are expected within any entity working 24/7, 365 days a year. Strong, who commented that the present chief is nearing retirement, said there are some great police officers working for the city and many of them could be hired as a new chief.
Both Gilmour and Neises believe the city should go back to having its own building inspector, that the city is losing out on revenue from inspection fees. Neises commented that the city lost out on $30,000 in fees during the recent expansion at U.S. Cold Storage, "and it's time we bring those fees back home."
The final question asked was where each of the candidates purchased their more recent car. Strong was the only one to purchase one in town.
The forum also included introductions of school board members Tim Cragg and Peggy Kunz, running unopposed; city clerk candidates Judy Radosevich and Amber Lynn Trainor; Ward 2 candidates Kirby Hall and Sherri Michaels; and Ward 3 candidates lisa Butler, Kathryn Shea and Joe VanDuyne.
Posted: Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Article comment by:
The mention of the car question is very inaccurate in this article.
Neises got flustered and was unable to answer the question.
Orr said his last car was purchased at Auto Emporium on Kankakee and 53, in Wilmington.
Gilmour said he bought cars from a Ford dealer in Wilmington, and bought another car from the same dealership after they moved out of town.
Strong said his was from Lombardi.
I don't know how that qualifies Strong as the only one to buy in town. In his own words that interpretation of what was said is silly. Orr clearly stated he bought in town and Gilmour bought from somebody who earned his business while they were in Wilmington.