Mayoral Candidates Forum Brings Out Differences

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    demdebate13About 75 people showed up to the Democratic Mayoral Debate Forum hosted at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Thursday evening, February 21st. Democratic Chairman Mark Pietrowski said that even though the Democrats organized the forum, the party is not endorsing any candidate, as the mayoral race is a nonpartisan race. The event focused on only the DeKalb Mayoral race, allowing more time for local issues to be discussed between the four candidates running for office.

    The proposed DeKalb Library expansion was the focus of at least two of the questions proposed from the audience. To the first question, both Jennifer Groce and Dave Jacobson felt that while the expansion was necessary, the 7.5 million in bond debt the library was asking of the City would max out all borrowing capability, putting the City into a dangerous situation if any other emergencies should arise. Mike Verbic suggested that the library reduce it’s funding expectations to $17 million immediately, and find a way to add on later if additional funding or donations come in.  John Rey stated that the library had already reduced it’s goals from 60,000 to 47,000 square feet and now the City should honor the request.

    All of the candidates, except Rey, expressed concern on the recent announcement from the library that they are seeking a bank loan to cover the $6 million in donation needed by June so it can qualify for an $8.5 million state grant.  Jacobson warned that DeKalb was going down the same path that got Sycamore in trouble with taxpayers. He reminded the audience that when pledges did not turn in to real donations the taxpayers were responsible for making up the difference with a sizable tax increase. Verbic again reiterated his feelings that the library needed to reduce it’s total goal to $17 million to start out. Groce, concerned that the library not lose its state grant, suggested that if the library could secure the $6 million from the bank, that option should be at least looked at. Rey stated that the City needed to cooperate with the library so that they could build the entire $24 million dollar project.  In rebuttals, Jacobson reminded the audience that the City would not be paying that bill, it would fall upon the taxpayers to do so. Rey countered that the Mayor needed to make that decision for the people.

    Concerning a South side TIF, Rey felt that the City should not let current TIF’s expire until they look in to transferring money between the TIF districts, to jump start the new TIF area. Groce stated that there is already a plan, EPA can help with the Protano property cleanup but the City needs to decide beforehand if they want TIF to focus on economic development, revitalization or streets and infrastructure for the South side TIF. Jacobson  suggested the City not repeat what he calls the ‘mistakes of downtown’  and spend TIF money on things like aesthetics (sidewalks) and government buildings (referring to schools on S. side). He would prefer South side TIF go towards economic development in some manner. Verbic stated that the success of any TIF is property taxes in the area going up and that this is not happening now in the current TIF districts. He felt that the City should wait until other TIF districts expire before starting another.

    On the topic of coordination with NIU, Groce reminded the audience that we have a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity with NIU getting a new President and Chief of Police, and DeKalb getting a new Mayor and Chief of Police, all at nearly the same time. While all candidates agreed that the City and NIU need to start coordinating their plans for the future, Groce reminded the audience that HOW the City was going to encourage NIU to participate should be the public’s next question.

    Personal Observations:

    The forum was well run and concentrated on only the Mayor position. That allowed for more in-depth questions and answers and a better understanding of the candidates’ positions. Thanks to Mark Pietrowski and Dan Kenney!

    I liked the candidate’s opportunity for a rebuttal. That was a positive way for candidates to distinguish themselves from each other.

    I was encouraged by the turnout for a first time event. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that means DeKalb’s citizens care about this election and election day turn out will be record breaking!

    4 COMMENTS

    1. David S- I apologize, I did not see your comment until now…

      I have spoken with the Library’s Director regarding the issues on several occasions. The biggest three issues (ie “Needs”) I see at this point are Infrastructure/ Computer and Educational Space/Handicap accessibility.

      In terms of infrastructure- mainly the boiler and roof- These are legitimate concerns. If these aging systems were to fail, it would likely render the building un-usable. Obviously these are “big ticket” items that likely could have been funded, in my opinion, through better sources (the “TIF Surplus” money used for purchase of the parking lot land or maybe even the remainder “use it or lose it” construction bond money that was spent on the Egyptian Theater) [Which was given to the Egyptian after City Staff claimed that no other viable or known projects in the district existed]. Obviously the aging infrastructure is a legitimate “need” -even at $2 million in expected costs- regardless of whether or not the expansion proceeds.

      In terms of computer/educational space, the libraries facilities are woefully behind the times. There is a legitimate “need” for these services that is being under served. Many “low/moderate income” families, job searchers, and other members of the community rely on the library for convenient and free access to computers and the internet. Obviously the lack in supply (space) has created a demand so great as to warrant a 1 hour time limit on the computers. Clearly this limit would not be conducive to research, homework, or job searches. In addition, the library sorely lacks space for community and/or educational programming.

      I have mentioned to Dee, that while a need for these spaces exist, I don’t feel a warehouse sized, $24 million (plus land costs, etc) expansion is the answer. With the depressed real estate values of today’s market, I think there are plenty of more cost effective solutions to the “space” need (and more will be upcoming with the planned vacation of the municipal annex). There may also be an opportunity for different taxing bodies (ie NIU, Library, Park District, School District, State of IL etc.) and community groups (volunteer groups, YSB, educational groups, foundations etc.) to get involved to either cost share or offer low cost (or even better, free!) solutions for the staffing of such a building- adding even more value for the community at large and the tax payer.

      Lastly, the Accessibility issue. I will preface my comments by saying that I worked in the field of Special Needs recreation for 5+ years, briefly taught special education (as a substitute), and remain a Special Olympics Coach today. I understand the difficulty that families and individuals with special needs have in using the building. Unfortunately, when you occupy an old building (especially a historic building), you have “old building” problems. This remains one of them. The library should endeavor to make their spaces as accessible as possible. They should explore the options and technologies available to make the building usable for all, along with the costs to do so. I can all but guarantee that making significant strides in accessibility will be SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than a $24 million addition.

      These needs DO exist, and careful planning and strategy will be needed to help fix them… Throwing money at the problem, in this situation, may indeed help fix these problems. The question, for me (and I’d bet for most) is can we do this smarter, cheaper, and more effectively… I believe the answer is yes…

      The library “wants” a $24 million project. There is, of course, all sorts of additional “extras” included in the project, well above and beyond the fixes to the verified basic “needs” the Library has identified. As of this point, I don’t feel as if those extras justify the expense, especially one with 20 years of bonded interest attached.

      • Thanks for your response Mr. Jacobson. It sounds to me like there is no plan B for the library – build or bust. It’s hard to understand why there is so much resistance to setting up a new computer lab, tending to infrastructure that needs to be fixed, and dealing with accessibility in a common sense manner.

        There is no “need” for additional space to store books. Stop buying books. Indeed, there is an incredible wealth of reading material available for those who choose to use the inter-library loan program. Educational workshops can be hosted at other facilities if necessary, without building more space at the current library.

        The concept of “throwing money at the problem” has always been the easiest solution and path of least resistance for those who are spending other people’s money. It’s usually much easier to pull out the rubber stamp and vote Yes without asking the tough questions or going against the grain.

        At this point in time, there is one critical issue that all public officials need to understand. Dekalb has reached the tipping point where many people simply cannot afford a tax increase in any form without being forced to live elsewhere. Some friends and family have already reached the tipping point and moved on. Those who remain are constantly complaining about a lack of money, working long hours, shivering under blankets in the winter time to lower the heat bill, or otherwise having to make difficult choices about their spending.

        Contrary to popular belief, there are other options available for funding community development and city services without the property tax. I look forward to the time when people are ready to talk about public banking, a debt-free currency, and monetary reform in general. Until that time, Dekalb desperately “needs” a fiscal conservative in office to limit the damage that has already been done.

    2. This is a request for clarification from David Jacobson. You seem to be one of few public officials to acknowledge and reference the topic of “wants” versus “needs”, at least in reference to the city’s budgetary concerns. By your statements in this article, you appear to agree that “the (library) expansion was necessary”, although many would argue that this is an unnecessary purchase from the “want” category. Do you support limited funding on brick and mortar? Would you rather spend more on computers and related support instead?

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