DeKALB – With less than a week before Election Day, DeKalb’s School District 428 Board, mayoral and 2nd Ward aldermanic candidates attended one final candidate forum Thursday at University Village Apartments.
A panel of journalists from DeKalb County Online, WNIJ Northern Public Radio and B95 WDKB-FM 94.9 questioned each candidate. Questions from the audience also were fielded.
DeKalb’s four mayoral candidates were asked individually how they would respond to certain criticisms raised by the public.
Mayor John Rey was asked how he would respond to the suggestion that City Manager Anne Marie Gaura and City Attorney Dean Frieders run DeKalb and the City Council.
“I would point to the strategic planning process the council has gone through in setting the 10-year vision for this community and has involved the elaborate collaboration across the community,” Rey said.
Rey added that city staff members are involved in running the day-to-day operations and the city attorney is very adept in bringing legal expertise to the table in these operations.
Jerry Smith was asked how he felt about voters thinking he was too nice to take on the responsibilities of mayor.
“I’d like anyone to ask the folks I’ve worked with if I know how to say no and can be decisive,” Smith said. “If being a nice guy means you treat people with respect, you try to live your life the right way and you live by the golden rule, then I am guilty, but believe me, I can be decisive.”
As a local business owner, Michael Embrey was asked if he was too busy to be the mayor.
Embrey said he consulted mayors of other Illinois cities that have multiple obligations outside their government duties but still initiated change.
“Benjamin Franklin said, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy man,’ ” Embrey said. “I am busy, but I will get things done.”
Misty Haji-Sheikh was asked how she would respond to claims that if she were elected, it would really be her husband, Michael, a professor of electrical engineering at Northern Illinois University, running things. Signs recently posted around DeKalb insinuated this by saying “Michael Haji-Sheikh for Mayor” and “Be Realistic.”
“Yes, [Michael] is a strong minded person, but this is my race,” Haji-Sheikh said. “I’m my own person, and I want to work with all of the citizens of DeKalb. I have very unique ideas and very different ideas I came up with because of the various organizations I’ve been involved with on the DeKalb County Board.”
With the uncertainty of the state of Illinois as a funding source because of the prolonged budget impasse and the reliance of DeKalb’s high property taxes as a means of revenue, D-428 board candidates were asked what they would do to reduce or control local property taxes.
Twangie Smith said that although she may not be well-versed on property tax issues, she would use her role on the board to keep taxes at where they are.
“Should I be elected, I would work so that property taxes are not raised again, the more knowledgeable I get, the more I will play my part in lowering it,” Smith said.
Former board President Tracy Williams said controlling property taxes starts by cleaning the district’s balance sheet and used the district’s sale of Kiwanis Park in 2013, which housed many soccer fields that weren’t being fully utilized.
“There’s no easy solution as any time you address financial issues, you address it in a small series of changes,” Williams said. “Selling off the soccer fields was not popular to do, but it’s what had to be done to keep the balance sheet in line.”
Catherine Harned said the funding formula that allocates money to local schools needs to be changed.
“In that, we can have a better control over property taxes, but there doesn’t seem to be much happening at the state level to change it,” Harned said. “There’s no easy answers, and we can’t expect the board to take that role of lowering property taxes.”
Jeff Hallgren said the issue comes down to getting very experienced in dealing with budget issues and restricted resources.
“I would review every contract we have, I would look into every one of the obligations and resources and would look to people with experience on the board for suggestions on how this would happen,” Hallgren said. “I would listen well.”
Board President Victoria Newport noted the refinancing a chunk of more than $100 million in bonds from district construction projects, which was meant to save taxpayers $1 million.
“We need to be fiscally responsible, have very strong cash balances and balanced budgets,” Newport said. “If we lose our current credit rating, our interest rates will automatically go up on our bonds.”
Shatoya Black said there needs to be a stronger focus on proactive planning.
“We should review all of the things that have caused increases in property taxes or can cause increases,” Black said. “We need to make sure we’re working proactively to meet long-term goals so that there are not issues we will be revisiting.”
Valerie Pena Hernandez said the city could benefit from working to increase the real estate market.
“A way to attract real estate is to be more family friendly but there are not many things to attract people wanting to start a family,” Hernandez said. “It’s really scary to think of property taxes going up, and it’s something we have to work on collaboratively.”
Jeromy Olson said the district balance sheet needs to be reviewed at what can be cut and by restructuring the district’s bond debt, it will buy time which is what is needed to solve fiscal problems.
“A public relations campaign to improve the outward visibility is vital to reducing the tax rate,” Olson said. “We need to, as a board, look at other boards and communicate with other presidents.”
Sean Johnson said new revenue can be drawn to the city by fixing the district’s student achievement gap, or the disparity in academic performance between groups of students.
“Drawing up more revenue coming into DeKalb can lower taxes as more people are coming,” Johnson said. “Lowering the achievement gap can reach that without a mistake.”