CHAMPAIGN — With Champaign County Chamber of Commerce officials concerned about the budget forecast in Champaign, frustrations about years' worth of tax and fee proposals have become apparent.
Chamber officials say the addition of a number of business costs over recent years is hurting the city's business climate. Champaign's mayor and deputy mayor say chamber officials should take a more holistic view.
With the city's structural deficit projected to continue into at least the next several years, chamber officials are expecting more taxes and fees. But they are asking for city officials to hear them out before the city looks for more revenue increases to close an expanding gap between the ever-increasing costs of running a town and annual revenues that have flattened through years of economic recession.
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Weis said there is no animosity between the chamber and the city council despite years of disagreements and, two weeks ago, a very public denouncing of the chamber's political positions by council member Tom Bruno and Mayor Don Gerard.
On Oct. 22, chamber board Chairman Michael Wozniak rose to ask the council to consider the chamber's zero-based budgeting principles. He said city council members should look for more efficient approaches to running a city instead of simply approving incremental budget changes each year.
"You have the storm-water utility fees, the motor fuels tax, the home rule sales tax, and yet you're still running this deficit," Wozniak said during that October meeting.
Forbes ranks Champaign's tax climate for businesses lower than nearby Springfield and Bloomington, Wozniak pointed out, and the chamber does not want it to get worse.
"The forecast had indications that there may be looking for increased taxes on top of that," Wozniak said. "I think in the business community — we represent about 1,200 businesses in the county — there's very little appetite for new tax increases in the business community."
Last week, Wozniak told The News-Gazette he did not wish to comment much further. He just wants to see some kind of movement on solving the structural deficit.
"I was hoping to see some resolution to the city's problem, and I don't want to interject personal things into the mix," Wozniak said.
Back on Oct. 22, after Wozniak made his comments, Bruno preceded his response by saying, "I'm going to be blunt about this." He then decried the chamber as being singularly focused on taxes.
Gerard followed up by pointing out government programs which have been beneficial for business in Champaign — storm-water projects have saved Campustown businesses from flooding, he said, and Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband offers technological advances.
"I appreciate the efforts that the chamber makes, in what they do make, but I can't listen tonight to the dire predictions," Gerard said during that meeting.
Other council members followed up by saying they are willing to hear the chamber out. Minutes later, Bruno said his tone "was probably uncalled for," but he reiterated the "history" between the council and the chamber.
The Chamber of Commerce throughout the years has consistently opposed new tax and fee increases proposed in Champaign, and has encouraged members to rise in opposition, too. The familiar way events unfold before the city council has irked some elected officials in the past.
Gerard said on Monday that he wants the chamber to take a stand on other issues, too.
"They're not taking a stand on UC2B. They're not taking a stand on our effort to protect the aquifer," Gerard said.
He also wants the chamber to support the Champaign Public Library, which has its own budget struggles. Gerard said he wants private business to sponsor library activities, and Chamber of Commerce members are good options to do that.
On Monday, Bruno told The News-Gazette that he has not heard from the Chamber of Commerce, nor has he followed up himself. He wishes, though, that the chamber would adjust its mission.
"Every time we have had some proposal for a tax increase or a fee, as predictable as anything can be predictable, they send out a mailing to their membership list saying this is bad and you should be against it and here's which council members voted for it and here's which council members voted against it, and you should call them all," Bruno said.
Bruno said that, if the Chamber of Commerce wants to act politically, it has every right to do that. But he wants chamber officials to see that government action — building roads and sewers and solving flooding issues, for example — can be beneficial to the business climate.
"I kind of think of a Chamber of Commerce maybe as being more a not-for-profit organization centered around boosting the business interests of a community or being hucksters for a certain community," Bruno said.
He added that calling attention to Champaign's business climate rankings below two of its neighbors and visiting city council meetings only when a new tax or fee is on the table does not seem to be a good public message.
"If that's the only story you ever tell, it seems to be kind of a simplistic approach to the world," Bruno said.
Chamber head Weis said, since the Oct. 22 council meeting, she is not aware of any follow-up outside of routine meetings with city administrators. But on the whole, she thinks there is no animosity between the chamber and the city council.
"From our viewpoint, we're a community membership-based association," Weis said. "We're an organization that takes positions; we're politically engaged."
Political engagement will sometimes cause disputes, she said, but she thinks the council and the chamber are able to maintain a working relationship.
"I do think so. We've had positive feedback from some of the council members," Weis said. "I think that, philosophically, there are always going to be differences."
Gerard said he is not so sure. He recalled being visited by chamber officials during his first days in office, but since then, his interaction has been at city council meetings on nights when members are voting on taxes or fees.
"I don't know what the relationship is, honestly," Gerard said.
Chamber officials also say their focus is working with city officials to address a five-year budget forecast that shows a growing gap if no action is taken.
"We simply recognize that the city is potentially facing a $6 million deficit in the future," Weis said. "And that's something that is going to affect all of us."