PRINCETON — The two men running for Princeton mayor on April 2 showcased their leadership skills during a candidates forum Tuesdays night at the Princeton Public Library. The event was sponsored by the Bureau County Republican and Voices from the Prairie.
Princeton Mayor Joel Quiram, who is running for a second term, is being challenged by Princeton City Council member Ray Swanson.
Candidates gave opening statements and shared about themselves, their families, their involvement in the community and talked about their commitment to the city.
The candidates were asked five introductory questions prepared ahead of time by Voices from the Prairie and the BCR. The questions got both candidates talking about concerns within the city, differences in Princeton today verses when they previously ran for office, their leadership strengths, projects they are most proud of, their regrets and funding solutions for the city's pension system, which is a big concern right now.
Following the introductory questions, audience members got a chance to submit handwritten questions to the candidates, which covered a variety of topics including trees, low-income housing, local drug issues, thoughts on a new school, and the proposed sports complex.
Swanson, who is currently serving on the council, said if elected mayor, he'd lead with a team approach. He'd take a hard look at the tax revenue and figure ways to capitalize on it. He'd look for ways to aggressively attract economic development. And he'd reinstate the city's revolving loan program, which hasn't been active for the past three years. The program gives out low-interest-rate loans to local entrepreneurs seeking incentives for existing or start-up businesses.
"We as a council are all here to make Princeton better and serve as good stewards of the taxpayer money. I understand the council won't see things eye to eye on various issues, but I will be respectful of the members' views and ask that they are, in turn, respectful of the rest of ours," he said.
Swanson said his biggest regret is not being able to get his building facade program up and running due to the city's tight budget, which is showing a $600,000 deficit this year.
Quiram stands firmly on the notion that Princeton has done very well these past four years. He said the city has committed leaders in its departments, and there's good management being provided by City Manager Rachel Skaggs. Quiram said when he took office, he had a vision to make Princeton a tourist destination — a place where people would be enticed by its charm and businesses along Main Street. The idea was that the charm would draw people back for the Princeton experience. Little by little, Princeton has made this transformation, according to Quiram.
He credits much of the effort on his decision of giving the tourism director position to Princeton Chamber of Commerce Director Kim Frey.
Aesthetic improvements in the downtown have made it more appealing to shoppers, the once-empty storefronts along Main Street are filling up with new businesses, and Princeton now has new volunteer-run groups — Bicycle/Pedestrian Commission, Historic Preservation Commission and the Public Arts Commission — as a result of the Main Street revitalization workshops held a few years back, that are also playing a key role in transforming the feel of Princeton.
"Everyone wants to be a part of what's going on on Main Street. ... It's an exciting time for Princeton," he said. "It's hasn't been as vibrant since the 1970s."
Aside from the Main Street improvements over these past four years, the city has cut thousands of dollars in expenses and eliminated $14 million of its debt, according to Quiram.
Quiram's only regret in the past four years is that the city didn't sell its former recycling building to Promier Products to advance economic development.
City's biggest concerns
Both candidates say the city's biggest concern is infrastructure and the lack of money for repairs.
The city council is proposing a .25-cent sales tax increase on the April 2 ballot, which would help fund curb, gutters, street and sanitary sewer improvements throughout the city. It's no secret this proposal was first brought forward by Quiram in a budget planning session last year.
While the council unanimously voted to put it on the ballot, Swanson showed empathy toward those already burdened by tax increases both at a local and state level. He shared that this is also his concern.
"People are becoming taxed out. It's affecting economic growth and our population when more and more people are relocating to other states," he said.
City's pension problems
Nearly every municipality in the state is facing pension problems, and Princeton is no different. The state has mandated municipalities to fund 90 percent of fire and police pensions by 2040.
Right now, Princeton is in a pretty good spot compared to many surrounding municipalities. Its police pension is funded at 62 percent and fire at 74 percent.
Both candidates were asked how the city should handle this issue.
Quiram explained how the city is already addressing it head on. He said Skaggs and City Treasurer Bob Davidson are working on a plan to fund pensions at 100 percent by 2040.
He said the city is currently paying $770,000 a year for 28 active fire and police pensions, and those monies come from property taxes. The city collects $1.2 million of property tax a year, so Quiram pointed out how well over half that amount is currently funding pensions.
Quiram said a change in the city's new health insurance company has created a $200,000 annual savings, which is helping to cover the pension costs, but he admitted it's still a "big challenge" and a "bad situation" for the city.
Aside from leaning on the city manager to find a solution, Swanson also suggested lobbying legislators to give local governments access to better revenue streams to augment pension contributions, or combine fire and police pensions into a new agency in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund to save costs and obtain higher returns on member assets.
The one-hour forum was moderated by Stephanie Van Ordstrand of Voices from the Prairie and Jim Dunn, editor and general manager of the BCR.
To see the videos from the event, click on the links below.
Segment 1: https://youtu.be/ltG-oVl4g28
Segment 2: https://youtu.be/B7_IsVt4_AA