On Tuesday, voters in Washington will make city history in choosing their mayor for the next four years.
The city’s first non-partisan mayoral election in about a century will result in either a sixth term for its longest-serving mayor, or a woman holding the office for the first time. Incumbent Gary Manier was first elected in 2001, while challenger Lilija Stevens was voted to represent Ward 1 in 2019.
Manier says his 20 years of leadership shows he's served Washington well through many challenges, and deserves to continue. Stevens says the city's continuing growth requires more city-wide collaboration. A proponent of term limits, she says a change in leadership would help Washington set a new direction.
WCBU reporter Joe Deacon recently interviewed both candidates ahead of Election Day. Here are their responses.
Joe Deacon: Why are you the right person to lead Washington over the next four years? What do you want to accomplish if elected?
Gary Manier: Obviously, I stand on my record (of) 20 years of, I think, good leadership, and we've accomplished so much. I mean, our population is increased by 50% since I was first elected and we’ve gone through a lot of different things. We had a population explosion in 2005, with 309 homes built that year, so we had to do a sort of expansion at that time and had to increase fees to do that, but we had to get some things done. Obviously, Five Points Washington was something I brought to fruition; it was one of my goals when I was first elected and I think that's been a staple in the community.
I think obviously, the recovery from the (2013 EF-4) tornado, and then obviously the downturn with Caterpillar moving and the economy slowed down. I think we've accomplished so, so much. And then obviously, the (COVID-19) pandemic (and) having more money in the bank than probably any other city around. I'm just proud of our services, what we've done.
Lili Stevens: I'm hoping to bring greater communication within our council and within the community. Washington, since we moved to Washington in 1991, it has grown considerably, yet the same power structure that has been in place for a couple of decades still exists. I would like to include the community, especially when long-range long range decisions are being made using our taxpayer money.
What do you consider the biggest issues facing Washington and how do you plan to address them?
Manier: I think there's a couple things. One, obviously, we've put a plan in place a couple of years ago, trying to increase fees enough and sales tax was increased to be able to do some infrastructure, and begin to do that on the east end (with) aging infrastructure which is 100-120 years old: streets, curbs, gutters, water, sewer – all of it. So that plan’s in place; we got quite a bit done this last construction season and are about to start again. So that's probably the challenge that's the most ahead of us. The other challenge will be the money that the state gives us in sales tax and income tax; to know that they're hurting, it’ll be interesting to see if they start cutting those fees that they give to us and what percentages we end up with. So it's a good thing we have $10 million in the bank.
Stevens: Well, the biggest issues facing Washington have the same issues that have been issues for many years now: infrastructure. We just started this past year to reconstruct Lawndale, North Lawndale (Ave.). Next year, the plan is to do Hilldale (Ave.). The problem is money. We have been discussing, during the budget discussions the last couple of council meetings, the problem with not having enough money to do the work that needs to be done that has been put off for many years. And no matter who will be elected mayor, that mayor has to deal with that situation.
As Washington continues to grow, both geographically and in population, in what ways do you want the city to grow? Where do you see the city heading in the near future?
Manier: I think the city, I think people still want to live here. I know, meeting with the realtors and things, they're all finding people, that they put a house on the market and it's gone within a week. People are actually paying more than what the asking price was, and people are trying to outbid each other. So I don't think that's a problem with people wanting to live here.
Growing the business climate is going to be important because I think we're just on the cusp of really seeing an explosion. We’ve got four new businesses that either opened or about (to) open during the pandemic, which is just unheard of. Being a home rule community we're based on sales tax, so that'll be important to continue to grow that base.
Stevens: The city has 223 acres that were purchased in September of 2013, without a plan, without an appraisal. The city has grown north of that area, north of the bypass, residentially wise. That area, the 223 acres is, I guess, the elephant in the room. We need to have a plan of what we're going to do with that land; we either need to keep it as farmland … but nothing can be decided until an appraisal is done to determine the value of the land now.
Our new city administrator (Ray Forsythe) – well, fairly new, he came in about the same time that I was elected alderman – we have now a constant comprehensive plan in place, and part of that comprehensive plan – well, not in place; it's study that is being done now – and the 223 acres is a major part of that. Because that would be where the growth would come in, whether some sort of business comes in there, whether it's some sort of mixed use, whether it's residential. But that’s to be decided with a large group of stakeholders, not just one person.
Do you think purchasing that land was the right thing to do, and how can the city make the most out of its investment?
Stevens: The way the land was purchased, I do not think it was a good investment because No. 1, the land was not appraised by the city. In my experience, we have sold smaller parcels of land since I've been alderman; that land has been appraised, and that has been the starting point of any sort of a purchase or a land deal. And again, this happened before I was involved in city government, but I've done research and the former city administrator, Bob Morris, has helped a lot with that, speaking before the city council and explaining it to the rest of the general public.
No, I would not have purchased the land without the appraisal, without a business plan, without an idea of what to do in that land in writing; nothing has been in writing. So I do not think it was a good investment, and now we're left with having to deal with the future of that land. It's been farmed, and we've had farm income from the property (and) we pay taxes on that property. But right now it's sitting there virtually doing nothing.
Manier: Part of it is it's paid for; there's no debt service on that property. And it's, you know, a blank canvas that we can use to create whatever the staff and council feels appropriate, and hopefully to generate people to come here as visitors (and) spend money so we can keep reaping that sales tax. I think having that piece of ground … hiring a consultant is something that council has decided, and we're going to do that.
We'll continue to take a look at it, but I'm not sure anybody on the council was looking at just dumping that property because, one, it's probably not worth $5 million if you sell it as farmland because you're probably not going to get that kind of money for it. But it is prime commercial real estate. M4 Steel, for example, they looked at that property first and chose – we're able to work out a deal with them with the owner of a different property that kept them within the city, and Core & Main is moving to another location. So again, we're starting to see some things happen and I think just a matter of time you'll see something develop on that property.
Do you see a fine line between smart growth and sprawl that leads to over-extending the city, and how can Washington manage that fine line?
Manier: That's part of the reason that the staff and council at the time, three months before the tornado, chose to buy the 223 acres: (it) was to try to slow residential growth down, because of the crippling school system that we had as far as busting at the seams and having to keep building new schools. Unfortunately, all the growth, or most of it, was seen in one school district, District 51. So we purchased that property as an opportunity to create our own destiny.
The city can sit on that property, and we've had several opportunities of people coming wanting to develop it didn't come to fruition. We've had several people look at it and want to develop there, but it's something that we can do ourselves. Similar to what East Peoria and Pekin and other communities have done by own property, it's just a smart investment on the city's part. We just actually sold two farmlands that we've had for, one was 18 years now and the other was 19 years. We actually ended up with a $1.7 million profit on those two properties. One, we turned into a retail, the winery, so now we're receiving sales tax on that property we sold. So I think we got to continue to make those type of decisions and keep the city moving forward.
Stevens: There is a fine line between that, because right now, I think Washington really needs to decide what we want to be. Do we want to continue growing? Do we want to be what we are now and focus on the strengths that we have? Thinking about growth, I know we've had a lot of growth in the last several years. But in the last couple years, we have not had much growth. We have been basically stagnant, maybe even losing people. I know it’s, the housing market is booming in Washington, which is a bit confusing so I'm not sure if people are moving from one part of town to the other. But if you look at the demographics and the population studies that have been done, Illinois itself is losing people.
What are your plans for managing the city’s finances and budget situation, particularly coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Manier: I think we’ve got to make sure we continue to stay within our means. I know with this infrastructure and the cost of repairing these roads, it's a little more aggressive than most cities would be. But we're going to try to tackle that, and as long as we don't have to spend down reserves … Everybody, most cities, as far as budget-wise, they try to keep 25% of their budget kind of as a rainy day fund for similar to what happened after the tornado or because of this pandemic. Having that 25% reserves is good, and we're way over that. So as long as we don't spend down reserves to go under that 25%, I think we'll be fine.
Stevens: The day-to-day decisions are made by the city administrator, who leads the staff. The budget is created by the needs that the staff has identified. Since I've been on the city council, I do not recall anybody asking the aldermen what they think needs to be focused on. I personally think the whole process of the budget system the way we have now needs to be changed for next year, in order to really maximize the taxpayer money to make sure we're using it wisely since we have so many infrastructure needs at this time.
What are the other infrastructure areas that need to be addressed and prioritized?
Manier: I think we're doing it on the east end with the water and sewer, and along with the Business Route 24, when IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation) comes through to do the curb, road, gutters, and everything on the private side, the business side. The city infrastructure will have some costs when it comes to that as well, so we'll be addressing those right along with that project.
Stevens: The east side of town, which is where Washington began, and like I said, we reconstructed Lawndale with a new sewer pipe of water pipes underground, the same with Hillsdale. We have an issue with the storm water and sump (pumps) going into the sewer system. We need to really work on that because that is burdening our sewer treatment plant. We need to help people and educate people to understand that storm water is an issue that is going to be affecting all of us, and that's a big concern.
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