It has been a privilege to represent Urbana Ward 4 for the past four years and I would appreciate your vote for re-election! I do have a registered write-in challenger, though I haven't seen any evidence of a public campaign. He didn't indicate a party affiliation, but he voted in Republican primaries in 2012 and 2016.
When I look back on my first term as your council representative, there are far too many issues to address in a review, but I'll try to list some of the major ones below. Besides the major issues, I also take pride in thoroughly reviewing budgets, agreements, and routine department reports and offering suggestions for improvement. I attend numerous city functions, C-U business group meetings, downtown events, neighborhood meetings, Community Coalition, park district and other community events to keep in touch with constituents and network with other decision makers. In addition, every year in May each member of the council scours through nearly 2,000 of pages of grant applications (distributed electronically on CD) for our social services funds, designated to leverage important work being done in our community by non-profit organizations, which provides about $250,000-$300,000 annually. Final amounts for each organization are determined by averaging allocations suggested by the seven council members, mayor, and township supervisor. Typically about 40 organizations request more than $500,000 to continue or improve services in Urbana, and about 35 are funded at some level.
If re-elected, I hope to make a habit of posting to this blog at least monthly so that I can provide an update on current issues. Council meetings are always public, with opportunity for the public to make comments on any issue for up to 5 minutes. Meetings are televised live on UPTV Channel 6 or U-Verse channel 99, and streamed live on the UPTV stream. They are also archived within 24 hours on the Urbana City Council website (see recent meetings). Our meeting packets are also posted on that site. Packets are posted on Thursday afternoons for our meeting the following Monday.
We meet every Monday except holidays (meeting moved to Tuesday) and when there are 5 Mondays in the month we skip the last one. The 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month are Committee of the Whole meetings where we have in-depth presentations when necessary on each council bill during its first reading. This is the meeting where we usually hash out changes or discuss concerns. For each resolution or ordinance, we either forward it to the following meeting for final approval or keep it in committee. Then on the 1st and 3rd meetings of the month we have our regular council meetings for final approval of the bills, sometimes with amendments - or we could send them back to committee for more discussion.
Each council member also serves on a board or commission. My assignment the past four years has been the Urbana Free Library Board. I'm continually impressed with the quality of services and programs the library provides, especially for youth and our seniors. My term started with a bang with a weeding controversy that lead to a separation agreement with the former Library Director. We then appointed a temporary Director while we held a search that resulted in the hiring of Celeste Choate, the current Director. Celeste has painstakingly managed a challenging budgetary situation where property tax revenues devoted to the Library were held constant or even decreased over the past 5 years.
A similar challenge faced us on the City Council in 2013 when Carle applied for additional tax exemptions after the tax levy had been extended, resulting in an unexpected shortfall of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Mayor and Council were determined to keep the city portion of our property tax rate at a level similar to Champaign, so we made some cuts and raised the home rule sales tax slightly in order to balance the budget that year. Property tax rates are a whole 'nother blog entry - maybe another day. But the gist of it is that Urbana's property taxes are roughly 20% higher than Champaign's due to higher rates from the School District, Park District, and the Township. City rates are competitive. Property taxes only make up about 14% of Urbana's City budget, with most of it allocated to police & fire pension funds and the Library. One of our council goals is to increase the tax base through responsible development to provide more tax resources for the School and Park Districts. With Champaign's massive new school bond issue and some bonds in Urbana districts maturing, we're hoping to see a narrowing of the gap.
Here are just a few of the more notable issues we addressed over the past four years:
Going for nearly 2 years without a full time finance director after a sudden resignation
Recovering from a major website crash lasting weeks and hiring a new IT director (who won't let it happen again!)
Several controversial historic preservation nominations (I supported 2 and voted against 2)
Creating a "gambling hall" liquor license to better control the number of establishments whose primary purpose is video gambling. I have voted "no" on more gambling hall licenses than any other council member.
Navigating rapidly increasing METCAD fees. We pay more than $700,000 annually for METCAD 911 dispatching services for our police and fire departments.
Carefully evaluating the pros and cons of providing TASERS for some of our officers who have received Crisis Intervention Training. Developing and approving an oversight policy.
Responding to resident's concerns - the Sims Hackberry Tree, digital billboards, police use of surplus military equipment (MRAP swat vehicle), medical cannabis, pot possession fines, brick streets, disparity in traffic stops, distressed properties and crime, etc.
Finding money to get Windsor Road fixed after an early pavement failure, only to have post-construction issues that prevented opening. I and other council members played an active role in justifying and advocating for a re-opening while responsibility for additional repairs is still being determined.
Responding to concerns in the community by re-affirming rights of immigrants, refugees and other non-citizens. We don't want our police force used as agents for enforcing federal immigration codes, though we will act on any valid criminal warrants. Nearly 1 in 5 residents of Urbana were born abroad - they should not be placed under a magnifying glass of suspicion. All residents should feel comfortable reporting crime and coming forward as witnesses.
Major public works projects completed include:
Boneyard Creek Project
IL-130 widening and improvement
North Broadway to Crystal Lake Pool
Olympian Drive bridge over railroad tracks
Lincoln Avenue extension (ongoing)
Main Street to city limits east, with new bike lanes
Washington Street, with new bike lanes
Race Street by High School
North Matthews Ave
Many resurfacing projects
But we still have about $20 million in unscheduled capital improvement needs including several failing road sections that need complete replacement.
Numerous economic development initiatives include:
Major incentive program for new single family housing construction - Think Urbana
Nearly complete build-out of the Gateway Shoppes area at University and Vine
Campus Circle apartments, a 524-bed complex on University at Goodwin
Student Apartment building with 84 units at Western & Lincoln
33-unit development on Kerr Ave utilizing low income tax credits that will include units reserved for veterans
Re-activation of several storefronts in the 200 block of W Main (Pizza M, Sipyard, [Co-lab], Stephens Building coming soon)
Riggs Brewery on IL-130, and another brewery under construction on the Boneyard
401 N Broadway incubator space on the Boneyard under construction
Approval of redevelopment agreement for the historic Cohen Building at Main & Race
New Cafe space under construction in the old cosmetology building at Water and Race
New downtown central TIF that will replace TIF 1 and TIF 2, providing a potential resource for incentivizing new construction and redevelopment.
A fantastically successful Farmer's Market that also acts as a community gathering space, much like Lincoln Square, which is showing promise as an exposition center.
Major challenges ahead, of course, with Health Alliance and many Carle offices on schedule to relocate from downtown Urbana to their new facility on I-57 at the end of this year.
What to do about the Landmark Hotel? That will definitely be a separate blog entry in the next week or so. Council members have been briefed generally on the proposal and have submitted comments and concerns to staff. But here are a few things to consider -
The city doesn't own it, and we probably don't want to buy it
Hilton won't invest in it and they won't "run" it - they might offer a franchise, which would cost the developer a couple hundred thousand up front and a recurring percentage of room revenue, likely 9%
There are no existing Hilton Tapestry projects to compare
Industry estimates of local spending impact are grossly exaggerated
A similar project in Peoria has run into trouble, and one in Bloomington was rejected
Any incentives provided should not take longer to recover than the life of the asset. If a remodel effort will need to be done again in 10 years, the incentive should be fully recovered in that time.
The original Hotel is a unique building that could, and I think should, be re-activated.
Any incentives should preferably be self-funded as rebates, otherwise secured with an equity interest or other performance guarantee
We should heed the advice of professional evaluation of market potential, long-term success, and likelihood for a better outcome if we say no. It seems to me that more creative ideas should be encouraged, but I'd consider a deal if the price was right and we are protected.
Congratulations to Urbana Mayoral Democratic nominee Diane Marlin. You ran a smart campaign, engaging residents in their homes, on the street and at dozens of events. Obviously they approved.
Mayor Prussing has accomplished a great deal in her time as Mayor, keeping Urbana on the forefront of social change by being one of the early adopters of police oversight with the Civilian Police Review Board; making sustainability a priority when others were still in denial; including public arts in Urbana life in ways that bring the community together; living up to the promises made in our Human Rights Ordinance. Driving every decision is her genuine concern for people - recognizing our rights, our failings, our physical or emotional challenges, and looking out for our financial well-being. Saying thanks is not enough, but it's all I can offer.
Her chapter in the history of Urbana includes managing the financial challenges of a recession and the unavoidable loss of a significant chunk of the tax base and (hopefully) a state Supreme Court victory. Her valuable knowledge of state politics and her active involvement and advocacy on state boards will be hard to replace. Mayor Prussing, you're a pro.
The best way we can show appreciation for the initiatives she made is to consolidate those gains and make them stronger for weathering an uncertain future. It's easy for people to criticize a program if it has existed under only one administration. For a program to prove it's worth, it needs to be tested and improved in order to stand the test of time.
To Evelyn Underwood, I just say I have a great deal of admiration and respect for your willingness to provide another voice in this campaign. A voice that is heard too infrequently. I learned a lot listening to you during the debates, not only about your background and experiences coming of age during the Civil Rights Era in Urbana, but also how to turn the tables on the questioners to answer the question you wanted to answer instead of what they asked! Your well-informed comments proved that you really were listening all that time you've been coming to Council meetings. I enjoy your company and hope you will keep on coming, and I look forward to learning more.