Three candidates seek two seats in Champaign County District 3

URBANA — The three Republican candidates for Champaign County Board District 3 include a longtime board member, a recent appointee to the board and a newcomer.

Two of the candidates will be chosen in Tuesday's GOP primary, with the winners going on to the November general election. So far there are no Democratic candidates in the largely rural and Republican area southeast and east of Urbana.

In responses to a News-Gazette candidate questionnaire, the three appear to be in agreement on most issues although Aaron Esry — who was appointed to the board last April to replace Greg Knott — answered only six of the 12 questions on the questionnaire.

Regarding the cash-strapped county nursing home, none of the candidates said they supported a tax increase to fund its operation, but none closed the door to the idea.

"I personally am opposed to increasing the property tax for this," said Esry. "I would let the voters in my district dictate how I would vote as a board member and am not opposed to putting this on the ballot should the need arise to do so."

Challenger Stan Harper said a property tax increase "should be a last resort."

Steve O'Connor said he would support a tax increase for the nursing home "when other options are exhausted. We need to ask our representatives in Springfield to help us get our back payments so we are not always on an uphill battle to keep the facility operating in the black."

But O'Connor also said that among his top priorities is keeping the nursing home open. He noted that a $20 million countywide bond issue for a new nursing home passed in 2002 with more than 60 percent in favor.

O'Connor also said he would oppose selling or closing the nursing home.

"We can't lose sight of our goal, which is to provide what's best for our residents and their families. These people are our stockholders," he said. "They own the nursing home as sure as the county board does. Selling it out from under them is not an option."

Harper said he'd vote to close or sell it only after a tax increase referendum failed. Esry said he would sell or close it only if "a referendum did not pass, and the nursing home was continually operating in the red."

None of the candidates committed to closing the downtown Urbana county jail and moving it to an expanded satellite correctional center in east Urbana.

"I intend to monitor the progress of the current county board as they discuss this issue," said Harper.

O'Connor said he wanted to review the results of studies before committing to a plan. Said Esry, "I don't want us to pour money down the proverbial rathole if the downtown jail is not able to be remodeled to suit our needs at a reasonable cost."

The candidates were noncommittal about the possibility of taking on part of the obligation to fund the operation of the University of Illinois Willard Airport.

"Let's get the nursing home taken care of before even thinking of tackling this," said Esry.

"No, not until all other current financial obligations are met," said Harper.

"Expertise in this regard is better handled by private enterprise," O'Connor said.

Asked whether they thought any county offices could be consolidated or eliminated, O'Connor said "none," Harper said the issue needed to be reviewed and Esry did not provide an answer.

None of the candidates supported raising county board members' pay beyond the already approved $60 per diem, and only Esry voiced any support for a plan to reconfigure the county board meeting room when the board size drops to 22 members later this year. "For better interaction between board members I would like to see this happen," he said. But "with the limited resources available to the county, I would not be in favor of reconfiguring the board room."

Asked where the county budget could be further cut, Harper said he looks forward "to studying the various aspects of the county budget," Esry did not answer and O'Connor suggested curtailing employee credit card use, and controlling employee expenses.

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