CHAMPAIGN – The city budget was a persistent undertone of both mayoral candidates' responses during their first debate on Wednesday night, and much time was spent examining Mayor Jerry Schweighart's record – even if the two candidates could not always agree on what that record was.
Schweighart, who has held the office for 12 years, pointed to his successes during that time, while challenger Don Gerard, a political newcomer, pointed to the incumbent's shortfalls.
Schweighart's facial expressions as Gerard commented on where he believed the mayor has fallen short were a visual representation of how the two disagreed on some facts of Schweighart's 12-year career.
Many of the questions during the debate, which was sponsored by the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana and moderated by the co-founders of chambanamoms.com, also focused on youth issues, economic development and taxes.
"On property taxes, heavens no, we haven't done that for 12 years," Schweighart said in response to a question about whether budget shortfalls might force tax increases. "Like I've said, we've created a balanced budget for a long time, 12 years, without increasing property taxes."
Some of the budget revenue increases could come through user fees, Schweighart suggested, like higher fines on towed cars. The sales tax must also remain flat, he said, or the city risks chasing business away.
Gerard also said he would also disapprove of tax increases. Instead, he believes wasteful spending persists in the City Building.
"I would like to see a comprehensive audit of local government from top to bottom to see where cuts can be made, savings can be made," Gerard said.
That is a message he has harped on throughout his campaign – as the city council examined budget cuts at the beginning of this year, Gerard offered an alternative proposal that he believed would reduce the need for cuts through cutting the salaries of highly paid employees and issuing debt to reduce payments on police and fire pensions.
The latter proposal was killed by the city council this week – they believed the investment risk was too high – and the former proposal, Schweighart said, is not viable because high-ranking city officials are protected by individual employment contracts.
Gerard maintained that the budget has not been handled as it should.
"There are a lot of areas where we can audit top to bottom before we're browning out fire stations or before we're laying off police support," Gerard said.
But Schweighart contended the budget has been handled well.
"This is tough times, and we're making minimal, minimal cuts compared to other communities around us," Schweighart said. "And we're in a position to come out of this recession, if there's an end to this recession, in a position to move ahead faster than the others."
The election could be a referendum on the state of the city – Gerard has said repeatedly that it is time to give voters a choice after Schweighart's three terms, of which the two most recent were uncontested.
Schweighart listed a number of projects he thinks vindicate his time in office: infrastructure improvements like Olympian Drive and Curtis Road, the transformation of the downtown area and the redevelopment of the Burnham site, he said, have all happened on his watch.
"I had a very heated race my first time, but there has been no opposition the last two times," Schweighart said. "I credit that with people are satisfied with the direction of the city."
Gerard said the city needs a new direction, guided in the immediate future by more fiscal responsibility and elimination of wasteful spending. He said the mayor's power lies with his ability to communicate.
"This is a time when people are concerned, and I think it's time that we have some new ideas, a new face and a new voice for the community," Gerard says.