About 50 Carbondale residents attended a community mayoral forum Thursday, March 7 at the civic center.
The forum featured incumbent Mayor Mike Henry and his challenger, Nathan Colombo, both candidates on the April 2 municipal ballot. Mayor Henry, owner of Henry Printing, is running for a second term. Colombo, a community organizer and social media manager, is running in his first municipal election.
The forum was sponsored by Women for Change with partners from the Shawnee Group of the Sierra Club, the Carbondale Community Solar Working Group, the Green Party and the Carbondale NAACP. Questions were chosen by the partnering community groups and included some citizens' questions that were submitted in advance.
What would you want to accomplish should you be elected mayor?
Mayor Henry said he would "keep going" with the projects he has been working on as mayor, including revitalizing the old town square, continuing to build and maintain good relationships with businesses, and working with SIU to help build enrollment.
"We have a great city council, staff and city manager," Henry said. "I am very committed to this job."
Colombo said he would work on a "new identity that we can build in this town and around the city," which would include "business initiatives" and "utilizing relationships with SIU and SIH" to "light a fire of passion."
"We can make Carbondale the small city of the future," Colombo said. "This is a transitional time with all sorts of what-if's."
How would you help businesses on the Strip, established ones facing challenges and potential new ones?
Colombo said he tried to start a business recently and had problems finding capital in part because lenders "worried about the risk."
"There are opportunities during this time of transition," he said. "I believe the city should use its resources to offset the risks faced by new businesses."
Mayor Henry said the city has done a great deal to help businesses on the Strip, including the recent downtown revitalization and establishing free Wi-Fi. He also said that several established businesses on the Strip were for sale simply because owners wanted to retire or move on to other things.
"We have many successful businesses in Carbondale," he said, mentioning several by name. "Steve Mitchell, our economic development director, hired on my watch, has been reaching out and has been very effective."
If you had to cut $1.5 million from the city budget, how would you accomplish that?
Mayor Henry suggested making "small cuts in each department, so we don't compromise city services," and working to increase revenue by "helping grow enrollment at SIU," in part by "increasing the number of festivals downtown" and "developing venues that would take advantage of the vibrant local music scene" He added that the festivals and musical events also would help bring in more visitors.
Colombo said the city should "take a hard look at capital improvement projects" to see where the city receives "proper returns and diminishing returns," and "take a hard look at the public safety budget" to see if there is "any way to re-allocate those funds."
"We need to look at all of the functions of the city to see where cuts can be made," he said.
Colombo also said the city should consider capitalizing on the governor's stated plans to push for legalization of cannabis, calling it a "coming reality" and suggesting a "city-managed cannabis company."
"We must also position ourselves for the loss of home-rule status," he said. "We should lobby to maintain it because if we don't, we must be prepared for massive shortfalls in tax dollars."
What would you do about deteriorating housing in Carbondale, and how would you work to increase home ownership?
Colombo said the city should look at "our new homeownership fund" and work to "ensure its integrity." He said there was "not one solution to the housing issue in Carbondale, other than to increase the city's population."
He also suggested that the city should set up a not-for-profit for landlords to assist them in relinquishing their properties and to help offset their capital gains taxes.
Mayor Henry said the city has a very active building neighborhood service department with regular rental property inspections, and that city employees are keeping an eye on vacant properties that might be deteriorating.
"We have a home buyer assistance program, a curb appeal program and a program that assists in conversion from rental to single ownership," he said. He also mentioned programs sponsored by the Coalition for the Homeless that help with rent and deposits.
Would you sign an agreement that would commit Carbondale to using 100 percent renewable energy sources?
Mayor Henry said he would sign that commitment and cited steps the city has taken to become more energy efficient, including the fire station that is using geothermal energy, more LED lighting, more efficient heating and air-conditioning units and programmable thermostat controls in the civic center, and "an aggregation program that is 100 percent green energy."
Colombo said he also would sign that commitment, adding that the legislature is pushing the state toward renewable energy.
"We need to position ourselves as a city to use all of our resources to transition to renewable energy," he said. "We need to develop relationships so that we know what this vision looks like in 50 years."
Considering that the increased number of modular homes, especially in the northeast section of Carbondale, is bringing down property values, do you see tiny houses helping with the housing issue? And how would you encourage more minority contractors in Carbondale?
Colombo said he had talked to the city manager about tiny house communities and that management was his concern.
"I would encourage a tiny house initiative," he said. "But we have to figure out the social component."
On the issue of minority contractors, Colombo said the city should develop minority-owned business initiatives and develop partnerships with SIU, the small business development center and the banks to address the issue of "excluding one-third of our citizens in this industry."
"We should do better," he said.
Mayor Henry said he agreed with "everything that Colombo just said," and would go one step farther by pushing to "bar manufactured homes under the city code."
"They are less expensive, but they don't hold up as well," he said.
On the issue of tiny houses, he said he agreed that those communities would require management.
Would you support a program of youth employment, specifically 50 youth working 20 hours a week?
Mayor Henry said he would support the program, but that the city would have to find the funds, and that when similar programs were started in the past there was a problem with lack of participation.
Colombo said he was a "product of this kind of activity." He said a program of youth employment is a "no-brainer," that it would require about a $10,000 investment, but that the "return and opportunities would be endless."
Would you support a union apprenticeship workshop to open doors to vocational training and increased minority participation?
"Again, this is a no-brainer," Colombo said, stating emphatically he would support such a program.
"We exclude so many of our citizens," he said. "We need to change the word 'should' to the word 'will' concerning this program."
He said conversations about the apprenticeship workshop are continuing and that the city needs to "redevelop relationships with unions" to make it happen.
Mayor Henry also said he would support such a program.
"We established a city project labor agreement a few months ago with our unions," he said, adding that a part of the agreement was to increase minority hiring. He also said the city has a responsible bidder program with a 16 percent goal of minority hiring that would be increased to 24 to 25 percent.
"What we find is that the folks who are interested in this program often need some basic skills, in math for example," he said. "We are hoping that John A. Logan will step up and work with the unions to help in this area."
What is your position on water pollution, specifically fertilizers with phosphorus. Would you support a ban on those fertilizers?
Mayor Henry said he would support such a ban.
Columbo said he also would support it, adding he would take it a step further and work with other local mayors to establish a coalition along Route 13 where all of the communities in that corridor would ban fertilizers containing phosphorus.
What would you do to get residents to comply with the city ordinance that grass or weeds cannot be taller than 8 inches?
Colombo said the contract for mowing lawns not in compliance with the ordinance was up for bid shortly and that the city should consider a youth program for that mowing that would "lower the cost" to the city and "help our youth." He also said the program needs "better documentation."
Mayor Henry said the city must bring residents into compliance with the ordinance and wasn't aware that there was a problem with that. He cited Carbondale's use of a "temporary inspector every summer" and said that the city puts liens on property if the bill for the mowing is not paid.
Would you support merging the park district with the city, and what would be the next step in that process?
Mayor Henry said an advisory referendum would be on the April 2 ballot and that the city had been speaking to the park district about this proposal.
"They have asked to borrow money until they get their first tax levy," he said. "But we need to find out how the citizens feel and continue talks with the park district so that everyone's a winner and we have parks that we can be proud of."
Colombo said it was a matter of "managing taxes" and "having better parks."
"But it's also about people's lives," he said. "There's a park district election coming, too, and new management may make it better."
Would you support a limit or ban on single-use plastics by the city, and would you encourage businesses to do the same?
Colombo said he would support such a ban and encourage other local communities to do the same.
"We need a holistic vision that allows us to achieve a larger goal of making a difference in our environment," he said, adding that engaging local businesses and the chamber of commerce is important and that bulk purchases could help control costs.
Mayor Henry said this was a "very important issue" and that he was "willing to consider all options."
"We have to stop the use of them," he said. "The city should stop the use of them," adding that we should also talk to local business owners about the impact of such a ban.
Are you in favor of a ban on using toxic and carcinogenic coal tar sealants?
Mayor Henry said he would be in favor of that ban and that the city should use alternative sealants.
Colombo said that the "business pushback will be the cost," but that alternatives should be researched, along with looking at using different kinds of pavers.
How would you encourage SIU graduates to remain in our community?
Colombo said that the city has to work to make home ownership a viable option for SIU graduates.
"We must also identify future industries," he said. "One of those is the media industry," citing the radio and television program at the university. He also said that providing student loan assistance would help, but that the city would "have to find the dollars."
"Times have changed and opportunities have changed, too, " he said.
Mayor Henry said that the city is doing many things already to encourage SIU graduates to remain in Carbondale.
"We are a diverse, open and welcoming community," he said, adding that one new industry in the city is coding and that "there is a new company in the city looking for coders."
"We have to highlight what we have," he said, citing the city's "active arts and music community."
"We need to show off how good we can be," he said.
Would you encourage refugees to settle in Carbondale, both legal and illegal?
Mayor Henry said he would encourage legal refugees to settle here, but not illegal residents.
Colombo said the "Census counts everybody and we should count everybody."
"We can't discredit anyone for their status," he said. "If you're here, you're welcome."
How can the city rightside its workforce and decrease its pension liabilities?
Colombo said Carbondale should reduce the size of its police force, but that it would not correct the pension problem.
"We have to engage our unions and have those hard conversations," he said, suggesting that the city investigate changing pensions to self-investment retirement programs to reduce the long-term cost.
Mayor Henry said the city paid a consulting group to look at the police department and that the only metrics they would and should consider were "calls for service" and "how much community policing we want to do." He said that by using those metrics, Carbondale had "five or six officers fewer than what we need."
He also said a big part of the pension costs was caused by what the "state borrowed" and how it "put the burden on cities."
Should Carbondale have plans for installing solar electric car-charging stations?
Mayor Henry said that there have been discussions on that topic and that he believed the city should have them.
Colombo said the city should talk to organizations and electric-car manufacturers like Tesla that could help defray the cost.
"We should explore it," he said.
How should the city move forward in addressing the contamination on the site of the old Koppers plant on the northeast side of Carbondale?
Mayor Henry said the city should "definitely do more testing."
Colombo said the city "could and should do more testing," and added that he was "disappointed in the lack of acknowledgement" by the city of "the racism inherent in this issue."
Do you believe that property taxes in Carbondale are a deterrent to new residents?
Colombo said high property taxes were "not conducive to encouraging new homeowners," and a "burden on our identity."
"I'm concerned, but I don't have a solution," he said. "We have to right the wrongs of our pension problems."
Mayor Henry said property taxes are not a significant source of income for the city and that the food and beverage tax was a better way to increase revenue.
How do you answer the charge that police patrols are not done regularly in all neighborhoods?
Mayor Henry said foot patrols take place throughout the city and that more patrols are made in areas that have more robberies or more parties as monitored on social media.
"We go where the crime is," he said. "We patrol equally across the city."
Colombo said the better question is "what we are policing," and asked if the police should be paying more attention to violent crime or burglaries, substance abuse or homelessness.
"Our officers aren't social workers," he said.
• The forum was part of Women for Change's 2019 voter initiative, "Vocal with Our Local," which aims to educate voters, increase turnout, register voters and share up-to-date polling information.
Women for Change was founded by Ginger Rye on March 16, 2017, after her grandson was killed by gunfire near her home on the northeast side of Carbondale. Rye formed the group to address violence and other concerns in the community, to educate and advocate for solutions, and to seek resources to improve and enhance the quality of life for residents and businesses through crime prevention, youth advocacy, community beautification and networking with other local organizations to encourage civic engagement.
For more information on Women for Change, visit womenforchangecarbondale.org or Women for Change Carbondale on Facebook.
For more questions and answers from Thursday's Carbondale City Council Candidate forum, visit carbondale times.com.