My name is Laura Saret, and I'm committed to making your voice heard on the Highland Park City Council. Like you, I care about Highland Park and want to play an active role in making Highland Park a safer, better place to live, work, and run a business for all residents--from those who are raising a family to empty-nesters who want to "age in place."
Three regular seats are available on the Council. Three incumbents and one other person are running for those seats. When Paul Frank resigned to serve on the Lake County Board, his seat became available for a two-year term. That is the seat I am running for. Two others are running for that seat as well.
What distinguishes me as a candidate?
What distinguishes me from my competitors is my unique background and experiences and the fact that as a retiree, I have no full-time job to distract me from being a Councilman. There are currently no retirees on the Council. I have neither current nor potential business interests in Highland Park nor am I beholden to or have ties to local politicians to affect my judgment or independence. My background includes business/management experience as well as experience in higher education. I have a doctorate from Northern Illinois University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. I can bring a badly needed fresh perspective to the issues facing our city. I have demonstrated that I am honest, transparent, an independent thinker, and a creative problem solver, willing to seek the input of the community regarding issues and open to explore all options before reaching a decision. I know how board members should behave as well as how they should treat the community. When I was President of the Faculty Association at Oakton, I represented the faculty to the Board of Trustees and sat at the Board table in addition to chairing faculty negotiations. My work on behalf of the faculty was to help develop interest-based solutions to problems. That was done by bringing people with divergent opinions together to try to solve problems in a way that nobody “lost.” I believe that people can disagree without being disagreeable, and that is how I will represent Highland Park on the Council. I am a community volunteer and, as such, will donate my Councilman salary to not-for-profits that benefit Highland Park residents. I have been married to my high school "sweetheart" for 43 years, have two children and two grandchildren.
Although I am not a politician, I have always been involved in “politics” whether it was as Faculty President at Oakton, President of Oakton’s State University Annuitants Association chapter, volunteering on campaigns in various roles--I’ve hosted coffees, expressed my concerns to elected officials, and participated in local meetings. I am disturbed by national and state politics as well as the way some local elected officials have treated those who elected them. I am convinced that now more than ever we need good people to run for public office. Otherwise, we “deserve what we get.” So, I decided to be one of those “good people.”
I am qualified and ready to immediately start serving the community by working on the policies that are necessary to maintain and improve the condition and future of our city. With an uncertain national agenda, as well as serious fiscal issues at the state level, we must work together to craft intelligent and creative solutions to protect Highland Park now and in the future. I have business/management experience in the banking and pharmaceutical industries, and I am retired from Oakton Community College where I taught business, management, and computer technologies. I was the faculty association president and chairperson of the computer technologies department, co-chaired the strategic planning committee, and led faculty negotiations for four contracts. I am experienced in issues surrounding pensions and the fiscal impact of insufficiently funded systems, interest-based problem solving and negotiations, mediation, strategic planning, and assessment.
I have an accomplished record of leadership, as well as civic and volunteer activity throughout the community and state. These include serving on the Highland Park Housing Commission and being appointed by the Mayor to the Human Services Task Force. In addition I am on the boards of the Community Partners for Affordable Housing (CPAH), the Volunteer Pool of Highland Park, and the Ravinia Neighbors Association (RNA) where I am co-president. In addition, I serve as a Neighborhood Leader in the Neighbor to Neighbor Program and am a mentor for College Bound Opportunities (CBO). I am also President of the Oakton Community College chapter of the State Universities Annuitant Association (SUAA).
My campaign is specifically based on the four interrelated issues of fiscal stability and accountability, public safety, infrastructure maintenance and development; and meeting the needs of our diverse residents.
Uncertain Federal/State funding, unfunded mandates, pension costs, and empty storefronts affect local taxes/fiscal stability. We must find sources of income other than taxes and seek out grants. Consolidating local governments and partnering with nearby municipalities and other taxing bodies would also reduce costs.
I was recently asked by a reporter about whether I would support a tax increase to fund pensions for police and fire. Our first responders work every day to keep Highland Park residents safe, but pension costs are putting us in financial danger. Contributions for state-required pension plans are increasing to meet minimum funding requirements. Illinois has more than 650 pension plans, paid for by employee and municipal contributions. All are struggling with funding requirements due to a history of underfunding, increase in the number of retirees, and benefits that have grown over time. In addition to pensions, Highland Park also pays a portion of retirees’ health insurance benefits. Pensions and related benefits are constitutionally protected, so they can’t be “impaired or diminished.” Thus, paying these contributions is NOT optional for Highland Park. If pension funds don’t have enough money to pay benefits, taxpayers must bail them out.
The most recent actuarial report from the Illinois Department of Insurance, charged with regulating public pensions, indicates that Highland Park police pensions were funded at 69% and fire pensions at 49%. The state requires that pensions be funded to 90% by 2040 and created a contribution schedule requiring Highland Park to increase its contributions yearly.
Highland Park funds pensions from a combination of property tax levies and other local taxes. Our property taxes are already high, so increasing taxes is something we must avoid if possible. We need to continue to remove all “fat” from our budgets, increase sales tax revenue in the City by filling storefronts in our business districts, solve our school issues so that property values will not decline and consolidate with other pension funds to create a larger investment pool which will provide access to a greater array of investment opportunities and reduce investment management fees. It doesn’t make sense for each municipality to manage its own funds. Raising taxes needs to be the last resort.
The same reporter asked a question about how we could improve downtown vibrancy. If we agree with Dr. Seuss’s advice “You have to be odd to be Number 1,” we should ask: What makes us unique, and how can we position ourselves to be the shopping area of choice? We must determine what our residents are shopping for and where they are shopping. Then we need to ascertain whether shoppers can meet their needs locally and recruit businesses that might better meet the demand. We should also educate residents about the economic value of shopping at local businesses owned by people who are not just serving strangers, but their neighbors, family, and friends who are important to them.
I told the reporter that we need to give consumers a reason to come to our downtown and must make the downtown more family-friendly by adding playgrounds (indoor and outdoor); public restrooms; and seating areas for mingling and outdoor dining, particularly in areas not associated with any particular food vendor so that customers could carry out food from local restaurants and eat outside. Free parking that is limited to 2 or 3 hours is not enough time to go to a salon, dine out, or go to a movie AND shop at local retailers. Northbrook Court attracts local shoppers with its playground and free parking; we should do the same.
Our downtown area is accessible to people residing within walking or biking distance, who drive, or who take the train, but it is not accessible to many other residents. For example, there is a senior connector bus, but it does not serve the entire city. A shuttle connecting more of our residential areas with local businesses would increase customers. We should also encourage more multi-unit residential properties within the downtown area, but the Plan Commission and the Council needs to do a better job ensuring that any new construction maintains the existing character of our city.
More public events would give residents and others a reason to come downtown. Public events like concerts and art fairs already bring people downtown, however we need more frequent events. In addition to our annual art fair, we could have guest speakers, and local artists, performers, and crafts people display their talents and wares in a public venue or through “pop-ups.” We could have a regular dining out event with local restaurants offering specials inside their restaurants. Bringing people downtown on a regular basis, once a week or even just once a month, serves to make consumers more aware of the amenities that exist in the downtown area.
The city already has a marketing person who could encourage local businesses to work together to increase business. For example, discounts and prizes for consumers who spend a certain amount in our business districts could be offered. I often see people walking their dogs through town, yet they cannot bring their pets into restaurants or coffee shops. Walk-up windows at some establishments that serve drinks and snack food would be welcome. Cyclists along Green Bay often stop for refreshments. We should recruit other businesses that serve the needs of cyclists and pet owners.
Highland Park commercial properties are owned and managed by very few people. This lack of competition keeps rents high. We need to develop incentives to keep storefronts occupied. One idea is to provide tax relief for owners who keep their retail stores occupied and generating sales tax revenue.
We also need to create a supportive environment for business owners that includes incentives to help “level the playing field” with other commercial areas. To the extent possible, we need to reduce taxes and fees, and streamline the development approval process. We need to make permitting and inspections less complex and more timely; provide technical assistance including market and feasibility analysis, business plan development, city regulations, advertising, and space design; provide an ombudsman to provide personal step-by-step help and who can also ensure that the process of working with the city goes as quickly and smoothly as possible; look for grants and financing opportunities to help businesses get started; and develop private development partnerships made up of local investors who might develop, own and operate a needed business.
Finally, we shouldn’t “do it alone.” Many neighborhood revitalization efforts have been supported by organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Streets Program that assists communities develop historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. We should investigate what they and other organizations can offer us in terms of expertise.
We must continue to ensure that first responders are well-equipped and adequately trained. We should emphasize sustainability efforts to be responsible environmental stewards. We must eliminate cell phone “dead” zones, which pose a public safety threat affecting businesses and residents.
I feel strongly about include preserving HP’s character/history without burdening property owners; greater transparency and independence among elected officials; greater community involvement; and encouraging diverse opinions. The Highland Park City Council has evolved into a body that appears to always be in agreement on just about every issue. In fact, overall in the past year councilmen voted the same way 95% of the time. I have demonstrated that I am not afraid to voice an independent opinion nor am I easily intimidated by my peers.
DIVERSITY ON COMMISSIONS, BOARDS, AND CITY COUNCIL
Our diversity in Highland Park should be reflected in our commissions, boards, and City Council. Oftentimes only long-time residents with connections to elected city officials are appointed to commissions creating a small group of people who serve repeatedly on various commissions. These same people are encouraged to run for public office and endorsed by those they will serve with. This only serves to "reproduce" the status quo. Our community contains many talented and smart people. We need to reach out and include ALL residents so that professional diversity as well as diversity of age, background, experiences and thought on City Council and other commissions will bring ideas to better solve our problems.
We must plan for changing demographics including our “greying” population and their needs for more housing, transportation, and services. We need to develop enough affordable housing for HP residents and workers and create more public/private partnerships to accommodate residents with mental illness and disabilities. All residents should be able to enjoy what HP offers.
My experience in multiple professional settings cannot be matched by my competitors. With the independence, experience, fortitude and courage necessary to lead this city into the future, I am prepared to represent you to improve the lives of Highland Park residents while still being fiscally responsible. I am committed to improve lines of communication throughout the city, and desire the input of more residents in our decision making processes.
Highland Park residents have good reason to be proud of their community. I want the same pride from all of our children and grandchildren not only now, but into the future, and I will work hard to ensure this will happen.
My family moved to Highland Park almost 18 years ago because we were looking for a place near Lake Michigan, with easy access to public transportation, a vibrant downtown, and exceptional neighborhood schools.
Since moving to Highland Park, my husband and I have made wonderful friends and found a diverse community in which people truly care about each other. We love seeing our neighbors when we walk from our home to the business districts of Ravinia and Central Avenue or on the Green Bay Trail and Rosewood Beach. We especially enjoy being able to walk to the Ravinia Festival as well as walk our dog through our neighborhood.
We love being involved in Highland Park and all it has to offer. If you vote for me to serve you on the Highland Park City Council, I will work hard to make sure Highland Park continues to be a strong, vibrant city.
Many neighborhoods, ONE Highland Park