Champaign Mayoral Candidates: On The Issues

April 06, 2015

WILL interviewed all four of the Champaign mayoral candiates --- Champaign Park Board President Joe Petry, City Councilwoman Deb Frank Feinen, incumbent Mayor Don Gerard and City Councilwoman Karen Foster. You can listen to and read about them below. A one-hour special featuring the four candidates will be re-broadcast on AM 580 on Monday, April 6th at 8 PM.

 

Champaign Park District Board President Joe Petry

Candidate order was chosen at random. Last is Champaign Park District Board president Joe Petry. Petry was born in the old Mercy Hospital in Champaign, and attended Centennial High School and the University of Illinois. He owns the County Plaza office building in downtown Urbana, and serves as president of the Champaign Park District Board.

Below is a lightly edited version of Petry’s interview with WILL. Click within the SoundCloud file to fast forward to a particular issue.

Addressing Violence and Poverty

Petry says crime and violence and the poverty that breeds it are the biggest challenges facing Champaign today. He says the mayor of the city should be placing more attention on the issue, even though some would prefer not to talk about it, to encourage action towards a comprehensive solution.

Police and Race Relations

Petry says relations between Champaign Police and the African-American community have improved under Police Chief Anthony Cobb, but that there’s still more work to do. He supports prioritizing community policing in the city budget, and working to hire more minority officers.

Tasers

Petry sees “strong reasons” for considering the use of Tasers by Champaign Police, but says he also recognizes opposition to the idea as well. He says there has to be a conversation about Tasers that considers all sides.

Potential funding cuts

Petry says the city of Champaign needs to let state lawmakers know that Governor Rauner’s proposed cut in state funds to municipalities is “not an option that is viable for our community”. He says the reduction would cut 5 to 6 percent of the unrestricted funds in the city budget. He blames state officials for “not funding what they had promised”, and now threatening to drag cities down with them.

Economic Development

Petry advocates what he calls “sustainable economic development”, that can be sustained for the long term. He says the University of Illinois is “the key to the economic engine of this community” that needs to be support it. In particular, Petry notes the importance of  the Research Park and the plans for an engineering-based College of Medicine for the Urbana campus. Petry wants to build on the success of downtown Champaign, bringing it attractions for all ages, in addition to the current bars and restaurants that dominate the district. He advocates development in the core of the city, where infrastructure is already in place, instead of what he calls “the urban sprawl model”

Development in Campustown

Petry welcomes new construction projects in the Campustown area and says it will help the city’s tax base. His only concern is that the area might be overbuilt, if the new apartment buildings fail to attract the expected number of students.

Bristol Place

Petry wants to move cautiously in the redevelopment of Bristol Place, a north side neighborhood that is slated to be completely torn down and replaced with new residential development. “These are people’s neighborhoods they grew up in. And we need to be sensitive to how they want to see this kind of thing happen”. But he says complete replacement may be the best move, if the existing homes show too much deterioration.

New location for Central High School

As Champaign Park Board President, Petry voted in favor of working with the Champaign school district on allowing a new Champaign Central High School to be built in Dodds Park. But a majority on the park board voted against the idea. Petry says he would continue to be involved in the issue as mayor. He calls city government the “lead governmental body” for the area, that can play a role in bringing local governments together. Petry says all the area’s local governments should be working more closely together “on shared goals as though we were one governmental body, because we’re all ultimately serving the same taxpayer”.

Relationship with the U of I

Petry wants to see a much closer relationship between the city of Champaign and the University of Illinois. He says projects such as the Research Park and the planned new College of Medicine can bring new jobs to the area. Petry teaches classes at the U of I, and says that experience, plus his background in business and local government can help in bringing all these sectors together.

Infrastructure

Petry cites streets and storm sewers as two of the most important areas of concern when it comes to city infrastructure. But he cites social infrastructure as a third concern, one that can be addressed by such things as better community policing. But he says he opposes raising taxes to pay for Champaign’s infrastructure needs. Instead, Petry cites his sustainable economic development proposals as a way to raise city revenue through economic growth.    

Champaign Councilwoman Deb Frank Feinen

Feinen is an attorney, an at-large Champaign City Council member, vice-chair of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission Board and a former Champaign County Board member. She’s a life-long Champaign resident who graduated from Centennial High School and studied law at IIT Chicago Kent College of Law and the University Of Illinois College Of Law. Feinen is a partner and practicing attorney at Tummelson, Bryan & Knox.

Below is a edited version of Feinen’s interview with WILL. Click within the SoundCloud file to fast forward to a particular issue.

Leadership Style as Mayor

Feinen describes her style as inclusive. She says that because she owns her own business and has a flexible schedule, she’ll be able to spend more time in the City Building and interact with city staff more than Mayor Girard can do. Feinen says she would “touch base” with other City Council members on a weekly basis to keep in touch with their concerns.

Police Race Relations & Recent Shootings

Feinen credits Police Chief Anthony Cobb and the development of the Champaign Community Coalition for much of the progress made in recent years improving police relations with the African-American community. But she says more needs to be done, including recognizing that struggling families need help that the police can’t provide, including services to help them overcome poverty and homelessness. Feinen says any decision on equipping Champaign police with Tasers needs a “community conversation”, so that all sides of the question are heard and discussed. But she says that if Tasers are to be used in Champaign, she prefers they be by Champaign police trained to Champaign standards, instead by officers who have been called in from other departments, just because they have Tasers.

Potential Funding Cuts

Saying the state budget is “in chaos”, Feinen says that after cutting millions from the city budget during the Great Recession, Champaign could weather the cuts proposed by Gov. Bruce Rauner “if we had to”. But Feinen says that she thinks the approximately $4 million in cuts proposed for Champaign will be reduced over the course of negotiations in Springfield.

TIF Districts

Feinen supports the use of Tax Increment Finance Districts as a tool to encourage development for a limited time in specific areas. She says that among the limited economic development tools available to the city, TIF districts have proven useful in encouraging economic development.

Development in Campustown

Feinen says the recent new construction in the Campustown district was years in the making. She says it was made possible by long-term city projects to improve drainage and control flooding in the area, which made the area more attractive to developers and financial backers.

Bristol Place

Feinen says the Bristol Place urban renewal project in northeast Champaign will improve the housing stock in the area. She says residents are receiving money to rent or buy homes in new locations while the project moves ahead. While they may choose to stay in their new locations, she hopes many will choose to return to the neighborhood, once it’s rebuilt.

New Location for Central High School

Feinen, while she respects the authority of the Unit Four school board, says, “I would prefer to see the school ina more central location that is walkable for local students, and not out on the edge of the community”. But she says as mayor, she would committed to working with the school district to make sure the new school has the needed infrastructure and city services, wherever it is built.

Relationship with U of I

Feinen praises the University of Illinois for being engaged in Champaign. In particular, she points to the university’s role in developing UC2B, Champaign-Urbana’s high-speed broadband network. Feinen wants to work with the university, Parkland College and Unit Four encourage more economic development making use of UC2b.

Infrastructure and Boneyard Creek

Feinen says the city is working to catch up on a $60 million backlog in needed road projects, as well as requested drainage improvements. She believes the city’s storm water utility fee will soon be able to speed up work on drainage projects. Feinen believes catching up on road projects will be more difficult, but hopes that some projects can be paid for with state or federal grants. She wants to give more priority for building a new Fire Station 3, and getting improvements made to the I-57/I-74 interchange, the site of several accidents over the years.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard

Next up is incumbent mayor Don Gerard. Gerard grew up in Champaign and attended the University of Illinois. He's worked at the U of I for over 15 years, and was elected mayor in 2011, ousting longtime mayor Jerry Schweighart.

Below is a lightly edited version of Gerard's interview with WILL. Click within the SoundCloud file to fast forward to a particular issue.

Potential funding cuts

The city of Champaign -- and all municipalities in Illinois -- are facing funding cuts from the state under Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget.  Gerard says Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed cuts to city budgets would be ‘horrific.’  He says Champaign needs to have revenue at the same time, and questions where it would come from.  Gerard also wonders how Illinois will continue to compete with other states, noting how Champaign garners national attention in cities like Boston, with the frequent expansion of technology-based business at the University of Illinois’ Research Park. 

Police – Race Relations

Memories of 2009 police shooting death of 15-year old Kiwane Carrington six years ago were brought up again by last summer’s shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gerard says that the hiring of Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb was a huge win, but says it will take a while for his leadership to filter through the ranks of the department staff.  The mayor says Cobb plans on having a series of town hall meetings with various communities, and generate a dialogue.  Gerard says Cobb has already gotten a number of officers involved with the idea of ‘community policing.’  He also notes there have been no complaints about the police department in recent city council study sessions.

TIF Districts

TIF, or Tax Increment Financing Districts, is a tool used by municipalities to foster improvement and enhance an area’s tax base. But they can also limit the amount of property taxes that go toward schools. 

Gerard says both TIF Districts and Enterprise Zones (designated areas where tax incentives and direct financial assistance are provided to business owners and residents) have been ‘huge’ for Champaign, citing examples like Yahoo! and DS Volition (video game manufacturer), which have expanded their Champaign employment base with TIF funds.  He says Champaign’s economy benefits by bringing in software developers that make $50,000 a year or more. 

Tasers

Urbana is the latest police department (behind the Champaign County Sheriff’s Department and U of I Police) to purchase tasers.  What about Champaign?  Gerard says it’s up Police Chief Anthony Cobb to decide what kind of tools he would like for his employees to have on hand.   He says when that topic comes up, the chief will take time to listen to the community, and make an effort to educate citizens on why this might be a good idea.

Bristol Place

The Bristol Place neighborhood in Champaign's northeast region has been slated for major development, which means tearing down housing primarily used by low-income people.  Gerard says there is a way to make sure the current residents there have comparable housing.  He points to poor neighborhoods in Champaign that seemingly could not be brought back.  But Gerard says new development brings pride of ownership in places that once had a lot of crime and empty structures.

Development in Campustown

The area along Green Street has seen a number of high rises built in recent years.  Gerard says he’s most proud of the projects in the area that didn’t involve any TIF District or Enterprise Zone money - based entirely on investors and developers having confidence in this market.  He doesn’t believe the city is in danger of being overbuilt in terms of student housing, saying many U of I students would rather not have cars on campus, instead utilizing services like mass transit, Uber, and Zipcar.

New location for Central High School

The Champaign Unit 4 school district has sought a new location for the centrally-located Central High School for years.  Gerard says it was a city council goal in 2011 – for city planners to work with the taxing districts (Champaign park district, Unit 4) to ‘Keep Central Central.’  He says the city did its ‘due diligence’ and recommended that Dodds Park be considered (which the Champaign Park District Board recently voted down the use of), while placing the school at Interstate Drive may pose problems with city services and infrastructure.  Gerard says this is conversation is three years behind where it could have been.

Relationship with the U of I

Gerard says he’s has had a good rapport with U of I President Robert Easter and Chancellor Phyllis Wise.  He says in the past, Champaign has sat in the shadow of the university, and reaps the benefits.  But he says there’s a vision that we need to be together and unified. 

Infrastructure and Boneyard Creek

The city’s flood control efforts included implementing a stormwater utility fee for those in flood-prone areas in 2012.  Gerard says it’s worked well, and people in neighborhoods like the West Washington watershed are seeing a big return on their investment, drying up basements and streets, and driving up property values. 

City Council Member Karen Foster 

Foster is a teacher and a lifelong Champaign resident. She has served on the Champaign City Council for eight years and says she's ready to take on the responsibilities of mayor. 

Below is a lightly edited version of Foster's interview with WILL. Click within the SoundCloud file to fast forward to a particular issue.

Potential funding cuts

The city of Champaign -- and all muncipalities in Illinois -- are facing funding cuts from the state under Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget. Foster says Rauner's plan could be a huge challenge for the city, but she points to Champaign's experience weathering the Great Recession as evidence the city could pull through with a combination of staffing cuts and creative financial moves.
"It's a fine line between wanting the best for our city and also wanting the best for our state."

TIF districts

TIF, or tax increment financing, districts can concentrate money to an area for a period of time, allowing the area to be developed with minimal interruption of funding. But TIFs also limit the amount of property taxes that can go toward schools. Foster says she doesn't worry about a dropoff in property taxes for schools, and points to the recent downtown TIF district that she considers a success. She says she next wants a TIF for Bristol Place.

Bristol Place

The Bristol Place neighborhood in Champaign's northeast region has been slated for major development, which means tearing down housing primarily used by low-income people. Foster says she's confident the city has planned the development well enough that Bristol Place residents will only be temporarily displaced, then welcomed back after development is done.

Development in Campustown

The U of I student-centric Green Street has exploded with high rises in recent years. Foster says she can't control what businesses want to come in and develop housing, and says she welcomes their interest in Champaign.

New location for Central High School

Champaign Unit 4 Schools has been working on a plan to build a new Central High School for years. Central is currently located in the middle of town, but the district is eyeing locations to the north of town. Foster says she favors the Interstate Drive location and trusts the city planner's projections that Champaign's demographics are moving northward.

Police race relations

Memories of the shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington back in 2009 were brought to the surface once again by the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this summer. Foster says she's seen relations between the CPD and the African American community in Champaign improve in the last five years, especially after bringing on Police Chief Anthony Cobb.

Tasers

Urbana is the most recent local police unit to approve tasers. Is Champaign next? Foster says she wants to leave that decision up to Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb.

Relationship with U of I

Foster says she could imagine many partnerships between the city and the U of I, or the city and Parkland College. But she points to the shared infrastructure between the entities as the most obvious issue.

Infrastructure and Boneyard Creek

Foster spoke at length about flood control in Champaign and the longterm plans for Boneyard Creek. She says she's proud of the stormwater fee the city implemented after two years of discussion and debate. 

Story source: WILL