URBANA — Mayoral candidate Les Stratton leveled new attacks on incumbent Mayor Laurel Prussing on Friday in advance of their debate.
Stratton on Friday afternoon continued to delineate differences between himself and the incumbent as a Feb. 26 Democratic primary election nears. This time, he said city reserves have dropped dangerously low during Prussing's two terms and that the deficit spending needs to stop.
Prussing responded by saying the country went through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, and she made a choice — confirmed by the city council — to keep people employed and maintain key city services such as police and fire protection while revenues fell.
"Keep the reserves or keep the employees," Prussing said of the choice the recession forced her to make.
The city's general fund balance — essentially its savings account in the event of unexpected expenses — started the fiscal year in July at $1.2 million. It is projected to be around $500,000 by the end of the fiscal year this June. But Mike Monson, Prussing's chief of staff, said city officials are discussing steps internally to limit that decline.
Stratton cites evaporation of reserve funds in another city program, too: $2 million has gone out of the economic development reserve fund in eight years, he said.
Stratton also points to the city's general reserve fund — basically a "rainy day" fund — which was listed at $468,000 at the beginning of Prussing's tenure eight years ago and has been "depleted" today.
Money from that fund paid to fix a leaking landfill several years ago at a cost of more than $1 million, according to Monson. City officials also made payments of $572,000 annually for three years to pay back Meijer, which fronted the money for intersection improvements at Philo and Windsor roads.
"We can't continue this deficit spending," Stratton said. "And frivolous deficit spending is out of the question."
But it was all in an effort to maintain employees and key city services, Prussing said. The city is beginning to come out of the recession safely, she said, and Stratton has no experience running a multimillion-dollar budget.
"That was our careful budgeting," Prussing said. "We have enough reserves to operate on."
City officials say other funds are healthy: $4.4 million remains in an account they use to replace city vehicles and equipment.
Stratton also offered ideas for economic development on Friday — he said the city should be looking to expand existing businesses, to leverage more city funds with private investment and to fill in vacant city lots.
"We should have been looking back at the beginning for ways to build our economy so we would not be in a position to lay off employees," Stratton said.
Prussing said that is exactly what the city already has been doing.
"Urbana has been steadily building its economy," she said. "That's why you see all the new businesses."