Q&A with Pattsi Petrie, Democrat, Champaign, candidate for District 6, Champaign County Board
1. Why should the county government continue to support a nursing home that needs financial assistance from taxpayers and the county government and serves, at most, about 200 citizens at a time. All of this during a time when the future of health care is so uncertain?
The county government should continue to support a nursing home because the home has been an important safety net in our community for 100 years. That's why I have put a lot of time and effort into working through the CCNH board of directors along with the AFSMCE representative to find a way to move the home toward fiscal stability and recognize the contribution of the staff toward the residents' care. Whatever solution we find will be a good first step, but it is not a substitute for a discussion among the full county board on long range plans for the home for the next 5-10 years. Precisely because the future of health care is so uncertain, I do not think it's wise to make any drastic changes to the nursing home at this time.
2. Should the county do anything toward planning for the construction of a new county jail, or an addition to the existing satellite? Or should the county government wait until it institutes a reentry program and any other criminal justice initiatives aimed at reducing the jail population?
I do not see this as an either-or question. The county board has begun a re-entry program, and it makes sense to see how this program works. But overseeing a re-entry program's development and effectiveness shouldn't keep us from beginning the conversation on how to improve conditions for the female inmates and those with mental health issues. Those plans may require a new county jail, but the only way we'll know is if we start the discussion while vigorously overseeing the re-entry program.
For the time being, my focus will be on the re-entry program, as well as finding ways to implement the recommendations we received from consultants on how to improve our criminal justice system in the county.
3. Would you support merging any county offices, in particular the county recorder and the county clerk? How about any other combinations? Are there offices or programs you'd like to eliminate?
I am in favor of finding efficiencies that reduce the costs of county government for taxpayers. Projected savings from such mergers need to be reviewed very carefully, however. Good mergers reduce redundancies, improve efficiency, and don't create conflicts of mission. It is not clear to me that the county recorder and the county clerk will necessarily have the best possible savings, though it might. Other options I would explore are merging Treasurer and Clerk, or possibly the Recorder and Supervisor of Assessments. The key, though, is careful review of redundancies between the offices and differences in their missions.
4. What is your opinion of the recent change to the county board, reducing the number of board members from 27 to 22 and increasing the number of districts from 9 to 11?
I think that the changes in the county board have had both positives and negatives, but haven't affected the quality of county government one way or the other that much.
The smaller size board has greatly improved interaction among board members, and has increased community interaction through easier televising and streaming of the meetings. The larger number of districts makes it easier for each board member to stay engaged with her constituency. I know that I've had conversations with far more of the voters in the new county board 6 than would've been possible in the larger district, and my town halls have become more intimate for the constituents, as we're a more tightly defined community.
The major downsides I see are these: an even numbered board has the potential of tie votes, fewer members means a less diverse set of experiences and backgrounds informing our decisions (though having more districts helps with this), we have fewer members to serve on each committee, and of course a smaller number of members can now hold something up that the broader county favors.
At the moment, I think these factors are balanced, but over time we'll see whether the closer constituent contact improves policy more than the possible loss of knowledge hurts it.
5. Should Champaign County have its own building code and building inspection program?
Yes, it should. I have explored this with the county planning and zoning director to have these as discussion topics on an upcoming Environment Land Use Committee agenda. The key questions are how to make the program affordable and what types of building ought to be included. Clearly some buildings, such as agriculture buildings, won't be included due to state statutes, but the goal is to develop a program that protects citizens' interests. Above all, I favor a building code that increases consumers' knowledge of the safety and health issues a building has while also minimizing the harm that would come from different types of building failure.
6. What can the county do to prevent housing problems like the notorious Cherry Orchard complex outside of Rantoul?
A properly functioning building code, with a property maintenance code and annual inspections of multi-family dwellings would probably not have prevented the problems with Cherry Orchard and the Jones building from occurring at all. But such actions would likely reveal problem properties earlier and preventing the problems from becoming as bad. So those policies would be an improvement, and would over time prevent the very worst of such problems.
7. What can the county do to encourage economic development? Are there particular businesses you would like to attract, any incentives you think should be offered?
One thing we can do, which I have already started, is encouraging local agriculture. The county took a major step toward economic development with the establishment of the Local Food Policy Council, a resolution I introduced and the county board approved. Because of the council, planning has begun to use the former Chanute AFB land along with several buildings to be used as food hub and fish farm. Local food production is a win for the county: the economic return rate of local food 3 to 7 fold that of commodity crops, local foods can be grown on small and even odd-shaped acreage, and local foods keeps money within the county.
I also support expanding our electricity production through wind turbines. We now have 32 wind turbines in the county. These generate per year a little more than $56,000 for the general fund. More turbines would add to this amount.
If incentives are offered they ought to be in the form to encourage growth of businesses that already exist because those will stay and recycle the money through the community. I do not support tax increment financing or enterprise zones, as these tend to cost the community more than is gained economically.
8. What's your opinion of the county's current financial condition?
The county is in balanced fiscal condition right now with no elasticity. That said each county board member ought to continue to use our fiduciary responsibility assiduously to maintain where we are presently and even improve on our situation by making solid spending decisions and looking for means to be even more efficient.
9. Do you believe the county government should offer 2 percent pay raises for the next four years to the sheriff, county clerk and county treasurer? Generally, according to the county administrator, they are paid less than officers in similar counties.
For now, I will support the county administrator's recommendation. My preference is that all county employees are paid fairly for the value of their work contribution to the county and on a par with workers of similar qualifications elsewhere, taking into account the difference in cost of living. Real cost-of-living comparisons have not been done in the past, and I have asked that they become part of the comparison calculations.
What's more important to me is that the board engage the citizens in this type of discussion. It is for this very reason that I brought the concept of participatory budgeting to the county board. The Democratic caucus held such a session in early September 2013 in the city of Champaign council chambers to discuss the 2014 county budget. This opportunity for public participation resulted in important changes to community justice programs due to citizen input.
10. What's your opinion of the plan to contract with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District to take over operations of the Champaign County Rural Transit Services later this year? Is this a program you support? Would you ever want to commit county resources to it?
I am in favor of providing transit for the rural residents. Based on the exponential increase in ridership when CRIS provided bus service to the rural areas of the county, it is extremely clear there is a need being met; we should continue to meet that need. That said, there are a number of ways to meet that need. One option—one I think we should consider — is establishing a county run a rural system. Rural transportation systems receive federal funding, meaning there is no cost to the county. And this seems to be the funding source for a number of years to come. It might be useful to be able to compare the options currently under consideration to this alternative.