DeKALB – How DeKalb's mayoral candidates would tackle economic development, the library's proposed expansion and their relationship with Northern Illinois University were brought out at Thursday's candidate night.
Each of the candidates said they would protect and invest in existing businesses before using public money to bring in outside businesses. Where the candidates differed was how incentives like tax increment financing would be used.
"The free market should decide if it makes sense to come here," said candidate David Jacobson, 1st Ward alderman. "Why are the taxpayers paying you for the opportunity?"
The DeKalb County Democrats hosted the candidate's night Thursday as a snowstorm descended on the area. Chairman Mark Pietrowski said the party is not endorsing any candidate, as the mayoral race is a nonpartisan race.
All questions to the candidates were from the audience and addressed to all candidates. About 80 people came out to the forum, including DeKalb County Board members, and city and township officials.
The fact that the DeKalb City Council loaned Olive Garden $900,000 in tax increment financing funds was criticized directly or indirectly by the candidates.
Mike Verbic, a member of the DeKalb school board, said development in downtown DeKalb would occur with more parking. He also questioned the wisdom of giving incentives to new businesses when there are existing ones that could need it.
Jennifer Groce, the former executive director of Re:New DeKalb, voiced similar sentiments.
"They have great ideas on how to grow their businesses," Groce said. "We have to help them."
John Rey, the secretary of Re:New DeKalb, agreed with Groce in that the city needs to examine how new businesses that might get incentives would detract from existing ones.
"We need to make sure we don't incentivize businesses that will take from existing businesses," Rey said, adding that the city needs better programs to help landlords fix up their storefront properties.
Jacobson maintained his conservative stance on incentives and tax increment financing, stating that it needs to be used on meaningful businesses. He also criticized the $10 million the city spent on the downtown area, stating that while the area looks nice, it hasn't attracted businesses.
The candidates' opinions differ on support for the DeKalb Public Library's upcoming expansion. In addition to having the city borrow $7.5 million for the project, the library wants to borrow $6 million from a private bank so it can qualify for a state grant worth $8.5 million.
Jacobson said he was worried that the city could be on the hook for $13.5 million if the library's fundraising efforts fail. He wanted more fundraising to be done. Verbic disagreed. He felt the city should match the state grant, and as private fundraising came in, the building would ebb and flow with it.
Rey said the library project will bring jobs to the community, while Groce shared Jacobson's concern on how the money would impact the city's credit rating.
Thursday's forum was the first time the candidate's relationships with NIU were also brought out. While every candidate has some connection to NIU, Verbic and Groce are both employed by the university. Groce is a research associate at NIU's Center for Governmental Studies, while Verbic works as an instruction media systems technician.
Rey and Jacobson were students at NIU, while Jacobson owns a building that houses the NIU fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu.
Both Groce and Verbic said it would not be a conflict of interest for them to serve as mayor while being employed by NIU. Jacobson hotly contended this issue, pointing to the fact that Groce had to get permission from their supervisors to work part-time if elected. Groce said conflicts of interest are inevitable in a community like DeKalb.
"It's about how we stand up and acknowledge those conflicts of interest," Groce said.