Mayoral candidates face off at forum

Pam Monson

    Candidates for the School Board, Park Board and mayor of Wilmington appeared at the Chamber of Commerce forum last week to state their positions on a number of issues pertinent to the unit of government they hope to serve.
    We’re taking a closer look at what the mayoral candidates had to say, and encourage readers to visit our website,, or Facebook page, or the Chamber website under the “Quick Links” header to watch the videos of all three sections of the forum.
    Please note that not all candidates — Larry Hall, Marty Orr, Roy Strong and Darla Neises — were asked to answer each question. Whenever possible, we did not repeat statements that the candidates made previously in our coverage.

How many more people need to die before we stop paying out the civil lawsuits and just get rid of the dam? Orr said the city has had to conduct an extensive title search, negotiate with state officials for the transfer and obtain additional property rights, and that all work comes to a stop each time a lawsuit is filed, because the state will not participate during those times. In addition, city officials want to eliminate the undertow, but not the dam, as it is one of the city’s greatest assets.
    “The challenge ... is make sure we eliminate the danger. Does that mean we have to totally tear out the dam? I hope not ... My argument has always been with the state, with the IDNR, if you’ve got the money to eliminate the dam why can’t you use that same dollar to make it safer?” he said.
    Strong said two people drowned at the dam when he was mayor, and that’s when the warning signs went up.
    “If I was mayor, the first thing I was going to do, was I was going to take big rip rap and I was going to just dump it right in front. And actually the state would probably let me do that, I’ve talked to them before about different things, they’re not that bad,” he said.
    He said he has had some discussions with the railroad, which is preparing to start building a replacement bridge over the Kankakee River. Strong proposed that instead of the limestone pilings going to the landfill, that stone could be used as fill at the base of the dam to eliminate the boil. He believes there would be enough stone to place at least one row of blocks along the entire length of the dam, and possible two.
    “That would take care of that undertow ... we would probably save a lot of lives doing that, and the cost would be very minimal,” Strong commented. “And it’s already in the water, so we’re not contaminating the water. To me, that dam is a huge thing and we don’t want to lose it.”
    Neises said enforcement, to help keep people out of the dam, might be her first step to address the drownings.

What’s your opinion of the warehouses going up at Ridge [RidgePort Logistics Center]? Hall believes that if the city is going to have warehouses, RidgePort is a good place for them.
    “It’s going to bring work in for the people. Is it a premium job? Nowadays, what do you call a premium job?” he said. “... I would like to see more commercial come out there than the warehouses. Down the road maybe that will happen.”
    Neises would like to see better paying jobs at RidgePort.
    “I’m not sure a $15,000 a year job is what most of us would consider a good decent job. We need to see if we can bring some industry out there that’s going to pay a decent wage with some benefits and not just temporary jobs ... Our people need to go to work.”
    She felt it unfortunate that the tax increment financing district will last so long.
    Hall countered that he knows of RidgePort jobs that are paying $45,000 or more.

Would you be in favor of working out a long-term agreement of 10 years or more with the Park District, and would you be in favor of giving all of the small parks to the Island Park District? Strong said it’s not a big deal to work out an agreement for cutting grass, but after the drownings, the district was unable to get liability insurance for the island parks, and can’t own those properties.
    “The rest of them, I’d be glad to let them have them and take care of them. The Park District is a taxing body, we’re a taxing body, what difference does it make who runs or owns it. They’re all of our parks,” he said. “As far as the north and south islands, they could cut the grass and take care of it, but ownership would have to stay with us because of insurance down there.”
    Orr is absolutely in favor of a long-term agreement with the Park District. Historically, the city has worked with the district, even replacing the revenue the Park District received from rents at the trailer park in the South Island Park when the city decided it wasn’t appropriate for it to be a landlord.
    “We actually paid a fee to the Park District to help with mowing the parks,” Orr said. “At the time the park commissioners said it was purely temporary, and that after a couple years they’d be able to maintain it on their own and wouldn’t need the city services anymore for the revenue.”
    That position changed over the years, and the Park District asked the city for more than $100,000 a year to maintain the properties, and that the city turn over ownership of the neighborhood parks after 10 years.
    “That really didn’t make sense ... it’s like you paying somebody to mow your front yard and then after 10 years you give up your house to that same person,” Orr said.
    But the bottom line for the council was that privatizing mowing cost the city one third of what the Park District demanded and the city has been saving ever since.
    Despite the challenges of the past, Orr encouraged the Park District to increase activities in the park rather than focus on who is doing the mowing.

If you are elected do you plan to be a full-time mayor? Neises plans to be a full-time mayor and to keep regular office hours, not just collect a full-time mayor’s pay. Hall, too said he would be a full-time mayor, and that when the staff opened the doors of city hall, he’d be sitting in his office, not leaving until the end of the day.
    “I would be a full-time mayor, five days a week,” he said.
    “I’d be seven days a week,” Neises responded.
    “I have a cellphone, it’s 24/7,” Orr added, bringing the first laugh of the night.

Did the railroad offer the city or fire department around $50,000 a year to use the old Central School property? If so, why wasn’t a deal made? The Union Pacific made no offer to the city, but did approach the Wilmington Fire Protection District about using the former school site to store the heavy equipment and materials it will use in reconstructing the bridge over the Kankakee River. However, the site is not zoned for such an industrial use, it is residential, and material storage is prohibited in residential zoning. In addition, Orr explained that the city’s streets are not designed to accommodate the overweight trucks and equipment that will be needed for the project, and the railroad did not have permission to use them.
If you were not running for mayor, which of the other three candidates would you vote for? Neises picked Hall, Hall picked Neises, Strong picked Orr and Orr picked Hall.
    “There are two of us who have not been mayor ... we’ve already seen what’s happened with Marty and Roy, and it’s like Mike [Russi, Park Board Candidate] said, maybe new blood needs to be there,” Hall said.

Was approximately $10,000 of taxpayer money spent on a study to figure out what trees should be cut down on the island? Orr said a proposal to bring in an arborist to determine the condition of the forest on the islands, and to expand the scope throughout the community was presented to the council, but the council did not take action.

Do you believe at-will city employees should be given severance packages funded by taxpayers? Hall was the first to say no.
    “They make good enough money while they’re working there, and like the rest of us, we have our payouts that we have to have. We save our money and live off of that. No, I don’t think the taxpayer should be,” Hall said.
    Orr’s no was resounding, since a lawsuit dealing with severance packages was how his first term in office started, after Strong tried to secure their extended employment by offering his administrator and police chief employment contracts as he was leaving office. Strong and Neises also said no.

If you are elected mayor, do you plan on bringing back Mrs. Puracchio or Mr. Imhof back? Sheryl Puracchio was the city administrator and Mike Imhof was the chief of police under Strong, who said he hadn’t been in contact with Puracchio for a while, but didn’t plan to bring her back. Imhof, however, he would like to reinstate as the chief of police.
    “I like Mike Imhof, I think the community does, so that would be a, I would think about it. He’s a good chief, a lot better than the one that replaced him ... Mike would be my first in line for replacement,” Strong said.

The mayor only votes in the event of a tie, what can you accomplish as mayor that you were unable to accomplish as a city alderman? Neises said being mayor gave her authority over the budget and appointments, the checks and balances of city government.
    Strong explained that the mayor runs the committee meetings, so when the members vote on an issue, the mayor has already discussed it with the aldermen and how he would like it to be.
    “Sometimes aldermen think they can do this and that, and they can’t, so you have to remind them what they can do legally, and what’s right for the community,” Strong said. “You talk to the aldermen, you get along with the aldermen, in the committee meetings, then when it comes up for a vote, usually you know how it’s going to go because you’ve discussed it, especially the important thing.
    “It hardly ever happens that you vote; I hardly ever did a tie the whole time,” he added.
    Orr said it’s unfortunate when the mayor has to break a tie, but those come when a lot of debate and thought has gone into the subject of the vote. He feels it’s important for the mayors to be involved in the discussion as much as possible, to provide his educated opinion, but what’s more important is for the mayor to have the best professional staff available.
    “We all sit up here, all nine of us, we’re not experts in everything, but we like to gain knowledge in everything we can if we’re to vote on it,” Orr explained. “To put the proper people, whether it be a city administrator or the best finance person, the best police chief, the best water superintendent, the best sewer superintendent, the best public works superintendent we can to run the daily operations of the city, they’re the ones we rely a lot on. It’s our paid staff who educate us and to help us understand what they’re going through on a daily basis so we can make the educated decision ... for the residents we support.”
    Hall holds the same perspective as Strong and Orr, that the mayor has to be a leader.
    “You put the people that know all about the stuff, you put them in there and try to drive them into that direction that would benefit the city,” Hall said.

Why did the purchase of the Bridge Street properties cost the taxpayers so much, especially after the city administrator was saying it wasn’t going to cost the taxpayers a nickel in 2012? Orr explained that the city entered into an agreement with Openlands, whereby Openlands made the purchase and held the property for up to three years while the city gathered the funds to pay Openlands Back. City officials anticipated that a grant would pay half the purchase price. The city leased a cell tower on Strip Mine Road to pay the other half. The $252,000 grant was awarded to the city in January 2015, but later that month Governor Bruce Rauner took office and froze the funds.
    Interest accumulated, Openlands’ costs accumulated and state officials fought over a budget. Meanwhile, the homes at the entrance to the island were deteriorating, and the operating engineers took them down at no cost. All the city had to do was pay for disposal, which also came at a discount.
    Then state officials offered a different grant program, and city officials jumped at the chance.
    “We were rewarded the IDNR grant and unbeknownst to anybody, I think even the people at the IDNR, once we got awarded the grant we had to go out and get a new appraisal. So the challenge was before we had an appraisal with houses, now we had an appraisal without houses. So naturally the value goes down because you no longer have the property there. The IDNR money is less than we anticipated, but we had generated some extra revenue through sales tax and stuff we didn’t anticipate to help cover that cost.” Orr said.
    The city closed on the purchase and now owns the property with Orr said is good, because it’s an empty canvas that provides the community an opportunity to pursue a vision.
    “One of biggest challenges to face any city is to have an opportunity for a vision, and to create something out of something that wasn’t there to begin with,” he said. Claire’s Corner was a used car lot, but the Downtown Revitalization Committee had a vision for the site’s redevelopment — it is now a park that brings a little green space to the downtown business district. The mayor noted that the turn-of-the-century style lighting in the downtown, including the traffic lights at the intersection of Water and Baltimore Street, the walkbridge over the millrace, the parking lot west of the millrace are more examples of the realization of a vision.

Is Wilmington better off than it was four years ago? Hall thinks it is, that there’s been a lot of good headway made.
    “Ridge out there is a good example,” he said. “We brought that in, it generated a lot of money for the city. There are jobs ... I know a couple people who work out there that’s making $45,000 to $50,000. I think we’re moving ahead.”
    “I think we’re a lot better off than we were four years ago but we have a long way to go,” Orr said. “... Are we better yes, can we get better, most definitely, we need to ... We’ve seen our industrial growth but we’re struggling residentially, we struggle commercially. But we’re starting to see that residential growth come in. We had upwards of 12 homes built last year, and considering that the only homes that were being built were the school, I think that’s great and I think we’re going to see a lot more.”
    Strong noted that one of the city’s biggest assets is its sales tax revenue, which outpaces sales tax revenue in the surrounding communities.
    “The city of Wilmington, I don’t see how our citizens have done any better,” Strong said. “Our water bills keep going up ... and the semis, thank God Elwood shut that one road off, because, remember all the semis coming through town, it was a nightmare, anybody who lived on 53 you couldn’t sleep ... With Ridge out there you’re talking a 23-year TIF, when will Wilmington see anything out of this. I’ll be dead before I’ll see anything out of this, and I don’t feel the citizens have done any better. The Park Board, I don’t think the streets have gotten any better, so I don’t see that big of an improvement — for all the growth, where’s the improvement.”

Watch the complete video here: