DeKALB – In his eight months in office, DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith has answered a lot of questions from concerned residents, such as what are the most pressing issues, what does he feel really good about going forward and what does he find the most frustrating?
Smith tried to address these questions to the best of his ability during Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, where he gave his first official State of the City address.
Some concerns he raised were toward the city’s underfunded streets and the various problems with the DeKalb Municipal Building.
“Our aging streets, not to mention an aging fleet of vehicles, present a challenge to our public works department. Heck, they present a challenge to anyone trying to drive over some of our roadways,” Smith said. “So, we ask citizens’ patience as our budgeting process looks at ways to increase revenue and as we embark on a patchwork maintenance program.”
The construction of the municipal building, which was dedicated in 1968, has limited the ability for proper heating and cooling, which brings with it the probability of asbestos.
“The police shooting range downstairs limits our ability to do much with that space, and the antiquated boiler and chiller presents another potential problem, just waiting to happen,” he said. “We have begun the process of seeing what options there are to address this building and will solicit ideas and engage an array of sources as we proceed.”
If there have been two areas of focus for the city, Smith said they were public safety and economic development.
Although 2016 showed a significant uptick in DeKalb crime, Smith said he was informed by DeKalb Police Chief Gene Lowery that preliminary numbers for 2017 show nearly a double-digit decrease in crime.
“We find ourselves with a police department that has been very proactive in not only addressing crime, but in involving many segments of our community in making this a safe place,” Smith said. “We’re certainly not where we want to be, but we are making progress and have made it known that the criminal element is simply not welcome here.”
After the collapse of a portion of the roof of the vacant Campus Cinemas building at 1015 Blackhawk Road, the city indicated that it would be cracking down on building inspections and code violations, an effort that Smith reinforced in his address.
“We have many buildings that are not up to code and are not safe,” Smith said. “The city needs to collaborate, and we’re doing so with DeKalb County, with NIU and with police agencies in other university communities throughout the state. Decisive action is absolutely paramount if we want to maintain safety for our residents.”
One of the topics Smith touted was the new businesses that have opened since he was sworn in, such as the new Casey’s General Store on Peace Road and Route 38, the new Sonic drive-thru on West Lincoln Highway and the new Chili’s Grill and Bar on Sycamore Road.
In response to concerns that the city ordinances do not provide a business-friendly climate, Smith referenced his experience at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Chili’s, where he asked the restaurant’s managers how the city did dealing with permits, licensing and other procedures.
“They could not have been more pleased,” Smith said. “While we hope that our business community is satisfied with dealing with city hall, we realize that there are times when we have to work together toward a mutual agreement on an issue. Let me say right now this city will do whatever makes sense to help business set up shop and then let them alone.
“Will we expect them to pass routine inspections? Yes. Do we have every reason to expect businesses to comply with city ordinances? You bet. And will the city work closely with them to assure their success? Absolutely.”
In closing, one area Smith thought the city could do a better job was resident engagement. Therefore, he hopes to suggest a few ways over the coming months on how the city can be more participative, transparent and responsive.
“I encourage all our residents to reach out to their aldermen, this mayor, our city staff. I believe you will find us accessible and willing to listen,” Smith said. “Because, you know, we were elected to serve you.”