Urbana mayoral primary candidates' Q&A
The News-Gazette posed six questions spanning crime, budgeting, road repairs and other issues to both candidates for Urbana mayor in Tuesday's primary election: incumbent Laurel Prussing and her challenger, Les Stratton. The candidates were given two days to consider their answers.
Prussing has an education in economics and has spent her career in politics, including terms as a Champaign County Board member and state representative, eight years as Urbana mayor and 16 years as Champaign County auditor.
Stratton spent his career working for the Urbana public works department before retiring as operations supervisor in 2010 with more than 30 years on his resume.
Voters on Tuesday will choose between the two to decide who will be the Democratic nominee for mayor. Tuesday's winner will be put up against Republican challenger Rex Bradfield in an April 9 election.
Here is the sample ballot for Democrats in Urbana, from Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten's website.
City revenues took a blow during the economic recession, and the budget approach during the past few years has been a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. If you were elected mayor, what approach would you take during the next four years to manage the city's finances?
STRATTON: The Prussing administration has badly depleted the reserve funds of the city. They are down over $3.5 million in the last eight years so they are no longer available to fill budget deficits.
In the long term, the key is to bring businesses into Urbana with the intelligent use of our economic development funds so that we can increase our tax base.
In the short term, I will look for savings by controlling the use of unnecessary overtime and instituting programs that will reduce costs such as an employee health and safety program which can reduce costly injuries and health-related time off of work.
PRUSSING: My approach during the recession was to keep our employees by holding the line on spending and compensating for revenue declines with a mix of spending cuts, carefully selected fee and tax increases and drawing down our modest reserves.
During the next four years I anticipate a gradual recovery — including increases in assessed valuation for existing property plus a revival of new construction. This will allow us to avoid raising the property tax rate. I also expect growth in sales and income taxes. We need to carefully keep spending in line with revenues and gradually replenish our reserves.
Windsor Road is rated one of the worst streets in Urbana and will need a multi-million-dollar reconstruction. Is reconstruction of that road one of your priorities? And if so, where would you find money for it?
STRATTON: The 2012 Capital Improvement Plan shows that the Prussing administration is spending $1.6 million in local road improvement funds on Olympian Drive, a road that is completely outside the city limits. This type of expansion on the city boundary is a primary cause of urban sprawl.
I will promote "smart growth" practices by spending our economic development and infrastructure funds on existing neighborhoods and commercial areas.
I will shift the $1.6 million allocation of funds from Olympian Drive to Windsor Road and other roads that we drive on every day.
Editor's note: The source of the $1.6 million for Olympian Drive is from state and federal grants; the money cannot be spent on other projects.
PRUSSING: Windsor Road has deteriorated due to a faulty concrete mix 20 years ago. Apparently we lack a legal remedy. It is a top priority because it is a heavily used road. The new construction from Philo Road east to Illinois 130 was accomplished with federal stimulus money (the first project in Illinois to be approved). Reconstruction from Philo Road west may come from federal and state funds if there is a big push to restore national infrastructure. Otherwise we may need to borrow the funds. Currently Urbana, unlike most cities, has no debt, other than in TIF districts.
The city has given out a number of financial incentives for Urbana businesses in the past few years, and most notably, a $1.45-million deal with the owner of the Landmark Hotel. Please describe your approach to financial incentives for businesses and which areas in the city you think deserve the most attention.
STRATTON: Studies show that up to 80 percent of economic development can come from existing businesses. I will work with existing businesses to help them be successful and I'll help them to expand when they are ready.
I will use the city's development funds to leverage private investment. Using public/private partnerships to build Urbana can magnify the power of our funding many times. Development should occur mostly through private investments, but city funding should be used to provide essential infrastructure such as sewers, access to utilities and good streets.
I will target development to the vacant lots and buildings in our core areas.
PRUSSING: The hotel owner is contributing $2 million. The city share is higher for this project because the hotel is an anchor that will benefit businesses throughout downtown. Generally city money leverages 10 to 100 times more in private investment. Examples: Common Ground Food Co-Op — several million dollars in private money leveraged by $20,000 in city money; and the Main Street project across from Busey bank leverages $750,000 in private money with $70,000 in city funds. We expect all city subsidies to generate far more tax revenue in return. We consider each project individually with highly conservative assumptions.
Describe your leadership style and how you would interact with city employees, city council members and other local officials.
STRATTON: I will work with council members, city employees and other local officials in a collaborative, respectful manner. My first priority is to find a consensus to the problems that we face in our community.
I do not expect the people who I work with to agree with me on every issue. In fact, I value dissenting opinions so that every side of issues can be explored before coming to a final decision or position.
I have experience in working in a positive work environment that emphasizes teamwork. I will bring that type of leadership style to the mayor's office.
PRUSSING: My leadership style: Respect for individuals and for the democratic process. This involves consensus building by open public discussion, carefully weighing all alternatives. I meet at least weekly with department heads and maintain an open door policy for employees. I talk with council members individually before presenting proposals. I meet with the mayor of Champaign and other local officials regularly (we have numerous boards and commissions facilitating cooperation among local governments in Champaign County). I work with our state and federal representatives. To get more public involvement, I have created new boards and commissions.
Some Urbana neighborhoods have been addressing crime or economic issues — the South Philo Road business district and Lierman Avenue neighborhood are just two examples. What would you do in the next four years to encourage healthy neighborhoods?
STRATTON: I have released my Public Safety Plan that includes having an increased police presence in the high crime areas like the Philo Road corridor where the crime rate increased 25 percent from 2009 to 2011.
The Neighborhood Safety Task Force met only once in 2012. I will have it meet regularly and I will bring the meetings to the troubled neighborhoods so that residents can participate more easily.
I will have the mayor's office take a lead role in solving neighborhood problems. I will commit the resources of all city departments so that problems can be solved in a comprehensive way.
PRUSSING: We use a team approach of city departments plus neighborhood organizations. In the case of Lierman Avenue, crime has dropped drastically since the city condemned an apartment complex. The neighborhood has taken the initiative to form an association. I envision lower-density housing to replace the condemned apartments. We will have extensive neighborhood involvement in planning the new development.
We will need to follow a similar process in the problem properties in southeast Urbana. Poorly managed properties adversely affect good neighborhoods. We will continue to improve our early warning system which has helped us cut crime citywide by 25 percent.
What do you see as key initiatives for the city of Urbana during the next four years, and how would you pay for such programs?
STRATTON: I will end the mismanagement of our budget and our economic development efforts by hiring a chief administrative officer as the city code calls for. A city administrator who has experience in contract administration, labor relations, budget preparation and implementation, urban planning and other areas of expertise can save tax dollars by controlling costs and using our development funds effectively. This position will replace the current chief of staff position.
I will lead the city's economic development team as we target identified vacant and under utilized development sites particularly in the downtown Urbana area for "smart growth" projects.
PRUSSING: Urbana is examining the spectrum of problems and how best use its scarce dollars. Education and jobs are key to lowering crime and social ills. We want to ensure all children on the waiting list for early childhood education get help. This is in conjunction with an initiative on Transformational Leadership by University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise. We are also working with the city of Champaign, which has a successful youth employment program to provide work experience for young people in Urbana. The city cannot provide all the funding but can act as a catalyst for the community.
Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Four campus precincts have been consolidated into one polling place in room 209 of the Illini Union, 1401 W. Green St.