The three Watseka mayoral candidates took part in a candidates forum March 25.
Incumbent Mayor John Allhands and challengers Alderman Mark Garfield and former alderman Bill Nutter took part in the event that was conducted at the Watseka Park District and broadcast on social media and local radio. The Watseka Area Chamber of Commerce and Iroquois County Republican Women’s Club sponsored the event.
The candidates were asked eight questions, which were submitted by the public earlier.
Each candidate was given three minutes for opening statements and then given a minute-and-a-half to answer the question, with the others given 30 seconds for rebuttal.
Nutter was first to give his opening statement. “My name is Bill Nutter and I want to be your next mayor,” he said. “About 25 years ago my wife and I moved into this town from Manteno, Illinois. Unless my wife is holding back on me I believe we are going to be here for a number of years. All four of my kids went through the school system here and received an excellent education. All went on to various colleges throughout the state. About eight years ago I left the city council. I served for a number of years on the city council. I had the privilege of working for three different mayors. In fact one of them is in the audience tonight, Mr. (Bob) Harwood. I learned a lot from everyone of them.
“In addition of working for them, they also gave me additional responsibilities such as public works chairman, which I felt gave me a great insight into the inner workings of the government.”
He retired from the Aurora Fire Department a year-and-a-half ago, having served for 24 years. “I left at the rank of lieutenant. As many in this room can imagine that career had a lot of emotional highs and lows, but really I found it more of a learning center. When I first got hired at the department, the population of Aurora was about 100,000 people. When I left it was well over 200,000. It had then claimed the title fo the second biggest city in the state. Aurora for a number of years was known as a manufacturing hub. Very blue collar. In fact that’s where Lyon Metals moved from to come here to Watseka. When I left it actually housed a building that was the backup center to the Chicago Board of Trade. I can only tell you how high tech and how highly guarded that center was. A number of years ago the city also housed one of the largest malls in the state; Fox Valley Mall, which is still there, but now it also houses a very large amount of warehouses. In fact one of my last calls was in an Amazon warehouse. When we pulled up it was a pretty serious accident in that some large shelving had fallen on a couple of workers. As we pulled up in the engine they kept flagging me on to come with the engine. I wish I would have because after walking for three minutes with the equipment we finally found them. My goal is to bring economic development to this city. That’s how we are going to bring ourselves back.”
Garfield said, “My qualifications for mayor are: I have sat on the police pension board. I have sat on the 2019 Family Festival planning committee. I am currently the first ward aldermen for the city of Watseka, which I have served since 2015. I’m currently the director of the Watseka Auxiliary Police, which I have been a proud member of since 1998. I am the driving force behind the annual Iroquois County electronic recycling event. As your mayor I will work to control expenditures. As your mayor I will effectively manage city services. As your mayor I will continue to work with existing businesses to entice new businesses to the city of Watseka. As your mayor I will seek state and federal grants to improve our aging infrastructure. I have the time and the energy to be your mayor and I will bring integrity and good will back to the mayor’s office.”
Allhands said, “One area I feel makes me qualified is through my education. After I received my bachelor’s of science, I have a master’s in business administration, a master’s in arts and teaching and a master’s in educational administration.” He is currently a teacher at Tri-Point High School. He has been an adjunct business professor at Kankakee Community College for six years, and he has 14 years of business experience.
“I’m dedicated. I’m a progressive thinker. I’m a problem solver. I always look to be accessible and a good communicator. I know how to network well. I’m excited for the city of Watseka and some of the happenings that have gone on in past four years. I’m looking forward to working an additional four to make even more things happen.”
The first question was “One of the biggest problems in the city is flooding. How would you address the flooding issue? What are your specific thoughts on plans to alleviate or eliminate flooding?”
Nutter said, “It’s an age old question. I think it was our last election there was a referendum about a new taxing district. Inside of that taxing district proposal there was a presentation by some people that had gone through the rivers. I remember attending it. I don’t remember all the details. First of all I’d like to go back and review that and see what they were thinking. I’d also like to dig into what happened last summer and the fact that Kentland went under water — the first time I can remember that happening, but we had no effects per se from it. There’s something that’s happening that’s different in our area now. With every project we have done we always consider flooding. I see now a lot of the businesses going up along 24 have detention ponds to hold water, that kind of situation, to allow a certain amount of water back into the rivers. But I think most people in this city realize that there is no silver bullet. It’s a very expensive problem as we have all discussed in the past. I think every administration has brought some type of proposal as far as money, but again it’s something that we will always try to improve on. It’s going to take a lot of work.”
Garfield said, “Watseka has had many floods. And unfortunately it’s going to continue. Programs such as the DNR grant, which we are in the process of right now, will lessen the effects of floods on Watseka. With that said, Watseka sits at the very bottom of a 2,700 square mile watershed. This comes from the Army Corps of Engineers. One inch of rain equals on one square mile 17,378,560 gallons of water.”
Allhands said, “One thing I worked on the first flood I had was the DNR grant, for which we were awarded $5.3 million for purchasing and demolition of homes in the impact area. The other thing we are working on is the CRS, which is the community rating system, with Monna Ulfers and Eric Brandt. This is looking to give citizens some pretty good discounts with regard to their flood insurance.”
Nutter said the CRS started long ago. “Separation of sanitary sewer. There’s a whole host of components going into that program that he’s benefitting from, and the residents are finally going to benefit from. I just want to be clear that this has been a long process getting to this point.”
The second question was “If there is more than one meeting for an elected city official in the same day or evening, should that official be paid separately for each meeting? Why?”
Garfield said, “In my opinion if we do have more than one meeting a night we should just get paid once. However, that is not an easy process. It would have to be changed I believe in the next election. We are here to serve the people of Watseka not serve ourselves. In my opinion we should be paid for one meeting no matter how many meetings we are there for.”
Allhands agreed, saying he suggested going to smaller committees. “Right now we are full council meetings, and that tends to add on the price. Another savings we could do is reducing the number of people on the committees and having them on different nights. I can definitely tell you I can look into the process of only being paid once.”
Nutter said he also agrees, noting that he would like to see just two committees — public works and one for finance and legal. “We’d only have four aldermen on the committee and one sitting chairman, which may be the mayor or may not be the mayor. We go to smaller committees and fewer of them and I think the smaller committees would be more effective.”
Question three was “How do you propose reducing the deficit in the police pension fund?”
Allhands said, “We have gone as far it’s combined with the state at this point. As far as reduction of the pension fund, we are limited in certain aspects on that. One thing we do have, there’s 100 percent of the gaming goes toward the pension fund. Another thing we can look at is what was done up north and that is to take out a bond to get that paid up 100 percent and then work on the bond from that point. I think that was done in Bradley and that’s something that has interested me.”
Nutter said there are issues at the state level that could help. “They are starting to look at extending the 90 percent due date due to the pandemic. I think we also have to look inside. We may have attrition. I’m also going to say that until I get to see all of the finances and understand how all of the departments run it’s really premature for me to make any kind of assumptions as to how we are going to reduce that deficit. I just need some time.”
Garfield said, “As sitting on the police pension fund, I’m very well of our underfunded. A bond is one thing, but do we really want to saddle more debt to the city? We need to look at all programs possible and also as John has said, there is legislation pending in Springfield right now that could affect us and there’s also lawsuits against this pending legislation.”
Question four was, “How important is it for the mayor to attend public events in the community?”
Nutter said, “I think I had a track record as an alderman. I spearheaded us being in Christmas parades, July Fourth events. I think it’s critical. The mayor is the face and voice of this city. If the mayor doesn’t get out and talk to people, how do we know what’s going on? And how do we express to the people the issues facing this city? I have nothing to hide. I want to be as transparent as you folks want me to be. We have financial issues that have to be answered and I think once the citizens understand some of the financial challenges facing the city it actually makes our jobs as legislators easier. Again, we need that economic growth. We need positive responses and the only way people are going to find that out is if we are out there talking. We shouldn’t be afraid of people. It’s there city. We just are lucky enough to represent them. I think it’s critical and I tried to do that as an alderman whenever I had a chance and I’ll continue to do that as a mayor. I’m retired. What else do I have to do but walk around town and talk to people?”
Garfield said, “As many people know I’m a very outgoing person. I do go out and talk to businesses and I talk to people as it is. As a mayor it is very critical to get out and see the general public and go to these events and meet the people. I will agree with Bill, how else will we find out what’s going on within the city?”
Allhands said he agreed. “I try to get out as much as I possibly can. I try to get out to a lot of the businesses and discuss with them. In fact I have kitchen cabinet meetings with the business owners, so I feel there is outreach that I’ve done. I talk to citizens. I’m around my neighborhood all the time. I’m throughout other neighborhoods. I’m walking all the time. Whenever anyone has a question I’m more than happy to answer.”
Question five was “We have had noticeable increase in our water and garbage bills over the past few years. If a wage increase for the wastewater employees is approved will this result in an additional increase to the water bills?”
Garfield said the wage increase is not a guarantee and has to be voted on by the full council. “There are things we can look at: possibly raising the minimum gallons, possibly giving low income families a break. Everything is on the table in my opinion to look at. Budgeting is a big thing. We have to live on what we have as a city just as everyone in here and on Facebook have to do on with their budget at their home. With that being said, in my opinion and my opinion only, everything is on the table to be looked at.”
Allhands said he believes there are options. “One option that I’ve been thinking about with water and garbage rates — with the garbage rate we have a fund that sits there accumulating funds all the time. We can do a freeze on the garbage rates until that works down. On the water rates I think that every increase that comes in the future we need to absolutely study and justify on what the end means are. And that’s the same with property taxes in my opinion. We just can’t figure percentages and go we need to justify it.”
Nutter said the timing of pay raises is “probably not good with the pandemic and all. I hate to dodge questions but as an outsider looking in it’s very difficult for me to get a handle on where we are at and are our water rates appropriate. Personally to me they seem high to me right now as an individual. I would like a little bit more time to work with the employees and department heads and get a better feel.”
Question six was “Some employees drive city vehicles to and from work each day. These vehicles are owned, maintained and fueled by the city of Watseka. Should employees be allowed to drive these vehicles home? If so, how should this be determined?”
Allhands said, “One way to determine this is the importance of how they need to get to town to fix whatever might need to be fixed. I know this comes from employees driving trucks to Kentland. I can tell you those folks have been called out late at night. They’ve started at 5 and gotten home at 1. I think when it comes to our water and wastewater if we are going to have these types of issues come up I think everybody wants to get those fixed as soon as possible. So I think there’s some justification. I know another department head for public works drives his home. When it comes down to water and wastewater I feel that is of the utmost importance that we get someone here quick to start repairs immediately.”
Nutter said it is hard to argue with the mayor. “It is somewhat of a benefit. It should be part of their package but also they are kind of on call 24/7. Again. A little bit of a perk. gain it’s hard for me to argue with the mayor on this one.”
Garfield said, “I’ll be the voice of dissent. I’ve spoke openly on this in open meetings and in the general public. Vehicles, in my opinion, are city-owned property, essentially the taxpayers’ property. Should we let them go out of town, out of state? That’s a tough question and it’s going to be a tough question to answer for the whole council.”
Allhands said some of the police officers drive vehicles home. “When it comes to investigations or emergencies again I think it’s imperative we need to get certain folks here in order to do the job as quickly as possible.”
Question seven was “Do you support the Unit 9 referendum? If it passes how do you propose handling the increased traffic in that area of the city?”
Nutter said, “Again, going back to my experience in Aurora. I’ve seen the impact of good schools and new schools to a community. I think Unit 9 has presented a very good case for passing this referendum. I do support it openly. I think it will be great for our community. As far as increased traffic I know that there’s been discussion of extending roads in a couple of different places. I think until the referendum passes it’s a little premature, but as soon as it passes, if it does, I’ll be sitting down with the school district, our public works, our engineers, and we will work that problem out. I think it’s a minor problem. There’s plenty of variant to find ways into that school. I think it’s going to be great for our community. I think it has the potential to lead to consolidation with other schools. I think the school district has done an outstanding job of putting this referendum together, promoting it. All you have to do is drive down the street and see the number of signs inside of our community and outside. I do favor this referendum.”
Garfield said, “I fully support the Unit 9 referendum. We must keep our kids safe and give them a premiere and best education they can get. As far as the road goes we must work with the developer that currently owns that property and I do think that road will be essential.”
Allhands, too, supports the referendum. “With modern facilities we can give modern curriculum development. I’ve been working with our planning commission. We’re looking at a possibility of extending TIF 3 to work out the funding to extend that road. The biggest concern I have is emergency equipment getting past the high school during a home basketball game. There’s a definite need.”
Nutter said, “If the referendum does pass, as mayor it will be critical that I get out and work with the other taxing districts. What the bottom line is really our total tax bill. If there’s a way of working with the various taxing groups to keep it at a manageable level, even if we do have a referendum like this passing or city projects, I think it can be done. A lot of communication, a lot of hard work between the taxing bodies to make the total tax bill manageable. That’s our goal.”
Question eight was “With our water and garbage bill significantly increasing and since our local senior citizens live on fixed incomes how would you propose alleviating some of the financial burden?”
Garfield said, “As I addressed earlier, we can look at raising the minimum gallons, putting a program in place for older folks and low income families. As I said before, nothing is off the table. We must work with the council and the citizens of Watseka to give them the best services possible.”
Allhands said the city recently negotiated the garbage contract. “There was an increase there. That fund just sits there, I think it’s around just shy of $300,000. We can freeze those garbage rates until that fund gets down and we absolutely have to do something. As far as the water rates, we’re at a point to where I think we have to do a study of some sort, whether that’s internal or an outside source, to basically see if we need to be doing the increases that we are. If there is some form or fashion that we could do a reduce rate for senior citizens we can do that.”
Nutter said he and former mayor Ted Martin met with Fairbury several times. “We actually had a tentative agreement to use their operator to manage our water and sewer. The problem was our city wasn’t ready to take it back in house. Maybe we need to start reaching out to communities and spreading some of the fixed costs, such as an operator, such as equipment, and do like an E.R.H. That’s their whole principal is to spread it out as far as it can with fixed costs.”
Garfield said, “As far as garbage rates go, yes it is overfunded, but it doesn’t just sit there. Besides for the usual garbage pickup we use it for the clean up for the foods and we use it for the annual electric recycling event.”
Nutter said in closing, “It’s going to take the effort of not only the mayor, but the city council, all the taxing bodies and especially the residents of this city to move this city forward. All I’m asking for is the first four years. I will give you 100 percent. If in four years, and I’m sure it’s not going to be hard to find opinions, whether I’m going to be pushing this city toward this 5,800 population I feel we can attain. I’ll be a one-term mayor. You deserve better. Give me the first four years to prove myself. I think you’ll happy with the performance.”
Garfield said, “We’ve heard many different plans of action. I believe my ideas are best for the city of Watseka. By reducing expenditures and continuing to improve our aging infrastructure, I will do my very best to bring businesses to Watseka and continue to help our existing businesses flourish. I will be around for that morning, afternoon and evening meeting year round. I have no hidden agenda. Watseka is a great community and needs a mayor who will work with other council members to provide the outstanding service for the citizens of Watseka. I leave you with this thought. I have the time and energy to be your mayor. I will bring integrity and good will back to the mayor’s office.”
Allhands said, “I promise to work hard with our council. I just imagine what we can do if we didn’t have a budget that effected by flood, water and wastewater startup and a COVID hampered budget. I think the city has made a lot of end roads. We’ve posted $2.6 million in infrastructure repairs between roads and water and sewer. We have police and code departments that have been improved through expanded training, up to date tools and equipment. With reduced finances I think we can help with major expansion for local firms. We’ve done a $200,000 revolving loan fund with a firm and they’ve expanded and they are looking at expanding again. We are resolving a longterm dispute at one of our other manufacturers. They have brought more of their processes up from Robinson and now are working on the electronics. There has been the $5.3 million grant. We’ve actually had $5.6 million in total grants awarded. Through that I think we are going to make some end roads there. If given a second term I plan on working with the housing revitalization study to see if we can find affordable to reasonable housing for folks affected by the flooding and also for seniors. We are going to negotiations up with the hotel firm we were talking to. We went to three talks with them and the vice president of new development. I want to push that, but again we got interrupted by COVID. We also have another potential retail operation coming in besides Stock + Field and God bless them for being around. We’ve already given them the revolving loan fund application for this other retail operation. There’s a possibility and a good possibility for another retail situation coming in. I plan on working with Robinson engineering to develop an effective and good plan for our streets and water and sewer. With our relationships we’ve made with DNR and IEMA, we’re looking at expanding the buyout fund through our FEMA grant. Getting through that national hazard mitigation plan has opened a lot of doors for us and we’re going to be able to continue and possibly get all the homes taken care of.”