Karen Berkowitz-Chicago Tribune posed fiscal stability questions
Q: Would you support raising the portion of the City of Highland Park's property tax levy that goes to the police and fire pension funds? Please briefly explain your position.
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.
Q: Might you support creating one or more additional Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts to spark redevelopment of an underperforming area, provided of course the area meets the criteria? Please briefly explain your position.
At the present time TIF financing seems to be a popular tool to promote economic development. The idea is to use FUTURE increases in property values as a result of development or improvements to finance an improvement NOW. With TIF, taxes continue to be based on the pre-TIF value of the property, but the tax “increment” or tax on the increased value of the property after development is used to fund such things as property acquisition, utility expansion, roads, sidewalks, parking lots, and lighting.
Before voting in favor of a new TIF district, I would want to carefully evaluate whether TIF is the most appropriate tool to assist in economic development. On the positive side, no public referendum is needed for approval, there would be no new taxes, and we wouldn’t have to seek government grants to finance the project. In addition, the future property tax revenue generated as a result of the TIF project is money that we wouldn’t have had if the project had not been done, and an area of the city would have been improved. On the negative side, local taxing districts other than the city, such as schools and parks, will not receive revenues from incremental taxes of the TIF district until the TIF time period has expired and, as a result, may be affected by not receiving these revenues. Although the city is required to have a joint meeting with the taxing bodies affected, a representative from the state, and a representative from the public, the taxing bodies will have little input into the TIF decision. In addition, the TIF project may contain risk, and if the project does not realize the projected tax results, it could subject the city to significant financial loss, particularly any debt costs.
Q: What other approaches should the city consider to promote economic development and 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 need to 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.
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 we need to make sure 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.
The following is a list of issues provided to the League of Women Voters for their Voter's Guide
The priorities of City Council are fiscal stability, public safety, infrastructure, and community vibrancy. I believe key issues are related to these priorities:
*Uncertain funding by Federal/State governments and unfunded mandates
*Trend toward greater local support
*Local government consolidation to reduce taxes
*Increased part-time employees
*New fire station needed
*Maintaining landscape, vehicles/equipment, facilities, water, and streets/sidewalks
*Increasing walking/cycling options
*Insufficient parking in business districts
*Inconsistent cell service
*Preserving community character and history
*Need for greater transparency and diverse community involvement in local government
*Greater cooperation needed between units of local government
*Aging population creating demand for more housing, transportation, and services
*Accessibility, housing, jobs, and services for people with mental illness, physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities
*Additional affordable housing
*Immigrant and language issues, including sign language, to increase accessibility to city events/services Type your paragraph here.
Courtney Jacquin--HP Landmark posed the following questions:
Past local government/relative experience?
Housing Commissioner; Human Services Task Force; Boards of Community Partners for Affordable Housing and Highland Park (HP) Volunteer Pool; co-President, Ravinia Neighbors Association; Neighbor to Neighbor Leader; Mentor, College Bound Opportunities; President, Oakton Community College (OCC) Faculty Association; Local President of State University Annuitants Association.
What message would you like to share with Highland Park voters about yourself as a candidate?
Unlike others running for this seat, I can be a full-time Councilman. There are no retirees like me on the Council. I’m a community volunteer and will donate my salary to HP not-for-profits. My unique background BOTH in business AND higher education includes a doctorate and a University of Chicago MBA. I’m a leader with management, strategic planning, pensions, contract negotiations, and interest-based problem solving experience. I have neither business interests in HP nor ties to local politicians to affect my judgment or independence. I’m married, have 2 children, and 2 grandchildren.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing Highland Park and how would you approach it if you were elected?
Uncertain Federal/State funding, unfunded mandates, pension costs, and empty storefronts affect local taxes/fiscal stability. We should supplement tax income with grants. Consolidating local governments and partnering with nearby municipalities and other taxing bodies will reduce costs.
Filling storefronts requires a favorable business climate and customers. We need more non-service businesses, since service businesses do NOT generate sales tax revenue. We should seek businesses that residents identify as having potential for success and use incentives for owners to keep their stores occupied and generating tax revenue.
If you had been a council member over the last term, is there anything you would have handled differently? What do you hope to accomplish moving forward?
I would have recommended that zoning in business districts better reflect the character of HP, and I would have encouraged the plan commission to ensure that new buildings have a better “fit” with their communities. We also needed greater collaboration with other governmental units so that issues impacting the city, such as school closures and the Park Avenue Beach, did not become crises.
I will study commissions so that they better serve HP and that all voices are heard and represented. I will seek ways to encourage greater community participation and diverse opinions.
What are some of the most important issues of your platform and why?
These issues relate to HP’s priorities of fiscal stability, public safety, infrastructure, and community vibrancy. I’ve discussed fiscal stability/tax issues above. 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. Community vibrancy issues I feel strongly about include preserving HP’s character/history without burdening property owners; greater transparency and independence among elected officials; and encouraging diverse opinions. 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. Type your paragraph here.
The following are responses to questions posed by the Ravinia Neighbors Association for their March 2 candidate forum.
Question 1: Reasons for seeking a position on the Highland Park (HP) City Council
I am seeking a two-year position on the City Council to replace Paul Frank, who resigned to serve on the County Board. I am running to ensure that your voice is heard on issues that affect HP. Like you, I care about HP and want to play an active role making our city a safer, better place to live, work, and run a business for all residents—including singles, young couples, those who are raising a family, and empty-nesters who want to “age in place.”
What distinguishes me from my competitors is my combined business, education, and volunteer experiences. In addition, as a retiree, I have no full-time job to distract me from being a Councilman, and I bring experiences and a view of HP that differs from those currently on the Council. There are currently no retirees on the Council. I also have no business interests in HP that might interfere with my judgment.
I am not a politician, but I have always been involved in “politics” whether it was as Faculty President at Oakton Community College, President of Oakton’s State University Annuitants Association chapter, or serving on political campaigns. The political situation in our country and state as well as gripes from my neighbors and friends convinced me that 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 believe that all elected officials need to be open to diverse ideas and input from the entire community. I am a good listener and care what my HP neighbors think about issues affecting our city. Increased collaboration with residents may provide better solutions to HP issues. That’s what democracy is about—listening, caring about each other, and collaboration.
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 issues at the state level, we must work together to craft intelligent and creative solutions to protect Highland Park now and in the future.
Question 2. Describe the skills, talents and experiences you would contribute to your position
I am a volunteer and good neighbor. My volunteer service includes:
I am a proven leader experienced in management, strategic planning, pension and retiree issues, contract negotiations, and interest-based problem solving:
Eighteen-year resident of Highland Park. Born in Fort Meade, Maryland, where my father was stationed. Married for 43 years with 2 children, 2 grandchildren, and 1 dog.
Question 3. Write a brief job description of your view of this position, including the time commitment required
The Council ensures that HP fulfills its lawful duties, hires the city manager, passes ordinances, and develops/approves budgets for HP. The Council receives input from the city manager, who directs the daily operations of HP, and from city commissions governed by city code and composed of volunteers appointed by the Mayor and approved by the Council.
Councilmen must be team players because they do not have the authority to act on their own. Since decisions are made by the entire Council, it is very important that Councilmen attend meetings and be active participants. The Council meets twice a month. Councilmen need to spend time doing their “homework” reading packets and so on to be prepared for meetings. As liaison to commissions, councilmen must also attend commission meetings as well as other city-related meetings and activities that may occur several times a week.
Councilman is theoretically a part-time job, but in practice Councilmen are always on the job in our city, whether it is at a restaurant, at the grocery store, at the library, having coffee or tea in the community, or enjoying Sunset Park or the beaches. I expect to spend more than 20 hours a week on Council-related issues. Some weeks may require significantly more time than that. As a leader, I have always been accessible and want to be approached by residents who want to discuss a problem or share their opinion. I expect to receive numerous emails and phone calls. All of this takes time. As a retiree and empty-nester, I can devote the hours necessary without conflict. I have no other job or children at home that would interfere with attending meetings several evenings a week, talking to residents, or participating in other events/activities.
Councilmen should be free from business conflicts that may affect their judgment, transparent and creative problem solvers, willing to seek the input of the community regarding issues, and open to exploring all options before reaching a decision. I am able to do all of those.
Question 4. What do you feel are the most important issues facing the City and how would you address those issues?
Core priorities articulated by City Council are fiscal stability, public safety, infrastructure, and community vibrancy. I believe important issues to address relate to these priorities.
We need to set both short-term and long-term priorities. There are things we MUST do as a municipality (such as paying our pensions and fixing our potholes) and things that would be nice to do (such as more bike trails). We need to actively seek grants to supplement tax income. We also need to examine how consolidation of local governments might save tax dollars without reducing services. The city has been hiring more part-time employees and reducing the number of full-time employees. While this is a business strategy used to reduce costs, we need to ask ourselves if this is the direction we want to go as a city.
The solution to empty storefronts needs to focus on creating a favorable business climate, attracting jobs, and increasing customers. Internet shopping has continued to grow since 2000 and will continue to do so in the future, so we need to determine what types of retail are better suited to storefronts and encourage growth in those type of businesses. The emphasis needs to be on non-service businesses, since service businesses (e.g., nail salons and dry cleaners) do NOT generate sales tax revenue. I would suggest that we have focus groups of Highland Park residents “brainstorm” the types of businesses that might be successful and then reach out to those businesses.
We need to examine each of the business districts to ensure that the local needs are met. For example, Ravinia residents have been clamoring for a small grocery store since the grocery store closed approximately 19 years ago. Perhaps Sunset could have a satellite store in Ravinia in which there could be a small eating area as well as the sale of pre-made items. The outlet stores along Skokie Highway in Northbrook always seem busy. We should consider recruiting outlets to rent the space formerly used by Saks. Indoor playgrounds are also popular and a definite draw for families. Converting Saks into an indoor playground that charges a user fee might also be a good use of that space. Restaurants are always a draw, and we could create an area with picnic tables, maybe in Port Clinton Square or Renaissance, so that diners could carry out food from local restaurants and eat outside. In the summer, we could have entertainment as a draw. We could encourage local businesses to work together to provide prizes for people who spend a certain amount in a business district. I also see people walking their dogs through town, yet they can’t 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 at coffee shops to refresh themselves. We should recruit other businesses that serve the needs of cyclists.
HP commercial properties are owned and managed by very few people. The lack of competition keeps rents high in the business districts. We need to develop incentives for owners to keep their stores occupied. One idea would be to provide tax relief for owners who keep their retail stores occupied and generating sales tax revenue.
We should consider moving more HP city offices to the downtown area. While conducting business with the city, people will also shop. We also need to better educate people about parking options in the city and allow three-hour parking on streets so that diners also have time to shop. Some business owners have suggested the possibility of valet parking and might be willing to pay for it.
HP has a duty to protect its residents, and much of this duty is accomplished by first responders such as police, fire and ambulance. We need to continue to ensure that our first responders are well-equipped with smart technology and trained to locate, mitigate, and prevent safety issues. We must continue to support our public safety staff and continue to look for and expand ways to do so in a cost-effective way by partnering with sister governmental bodies and other nearby municipalities.
Traffic is an issue in certain parts of HP. Prior to any school closings and moving children to other schools, we need to study the impact of traffic and how best to mitigate the problems created.
Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant in our country, and we are not immune in HP. We have a federally-licensed and regulated opioid treatment program located in HP to help fight opioid and prescription medication dependence as well as addiction to other drugs and alcohol. Additional resources may become necessary as we, like other communities, continue to deal with this problem.
Cell service problems occur throughout the city. There are too many “dead” zones, posing a public safety and community concern. We need to work with the cellphone providers to improve the networks throughout the city.
As of 2014, there were approximately 30 city-owned properties. More recently the city has purchased properties for future use. The City needs to examine its property portfolio on a regular basis to determine whether it makes sense for the community to continue to own and maintain the properties.
HP residents greatly value their history, and historic preservation has become a “hot” topic. We need to study how other communities deal with historic structures and artifacts for possible ways to maintain our history without overly burdening our residents. We should convene a citizens task force to identify the issues and recommend win-win solutions. New construction, particularly in the downtown area, has created some consternation among residents. For example, many people I have spoken to during this campaign have complained about the new building on Central west of Green Bay. The city and plan commission need to do a better job working with developers so that new buildings better “fit in” with the current character of HP.
Our community like many others is “graying,” and residents want to age in place. We need greater accessibility, housing, jobs, and services for people with mental illness, physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities. I would suggest that we look at more public-private partnerships and work with local not-for-profits to explore possible solutions to provide more to meet the needs of all residents.
Question 5: How would you reach out and engage all members of the community
Engaging the community is critical to transparency of local government and one of the things that made me so successful as Faculty President and Faculty Development Coordinator at Oakton Community College. To trust local government, citizens need to be involved in decision-making as well as understand how decisions are made. They need to know that their voice is heard and that they, as individuals, can make a difference.
I believe that there is no one “right way” to engage people and encourage participation in activities. Each person has his or her own preferred way to learn and communicate. As such, an effective engagement strategy needs to be multi-dimensional. It is important to try a variety of ways to reach the community and make communication a two-way street.
The following are SOME ways to reach out and engage the community.
Community meetings and many of the above activities can be powerful forums for sharing ideas, airing concerns and engaging new people. But unless people have a compelling personal reason to do so, many will not attend a public meeting. We will need to create strategies for increasing attendance. Some ideas include:
Thank you for taking the time to read and think about my ideas. I’d love to talk to you further, and I hope to hear from you soon. You can reach me at 847-606-5313, FriendsOfLauraSaret@gmail.com. Also, please visit my website LauraSaret.com to learn more about me and how you can help. Make your voice heard—VOTE!