BELLEVILLE — Residents surveyed by the News-Democrat say their biggest concerns are crime; maintenance of sidewalks, streets and homes; and how the city spends taxpayer money.
As a preview to the municipal election on April 9, the News-Democrat interviewed 50 people throughout the city as a way to capture the issues currently on the minds of Belleville residents.
What are the most important issues facing the city right now? What topics are a factor in deciding which candidates to support?
Overall, Belleville residents interviewed are happy with the city's schools, parks, services and people. They think downtown is beautiful.
But some residents say they are ready to move.
They're disappointed to see crimes occur in places they once deemed safe. They worry the city's deteriorating housing fosters crime and they're tired of poorly maintained rental properties.
Residents citywide are unhappy with the conditions of the streets and sidewalks they use daily. They want streets to be repaved, potholes to be taken care of, money for complete sidewalks.
They say incentives given to big businesses could be better spent on infrastructure and public safety. Residents want their tax increment financing money to be spent on blighted areas, as intended, such as economic development in the west end.
Bob Schmierbach, 57, said that as nice as downtown is, crime will keep people from going out at night and spending money.
"It makes a prisoner out of you," said Schmierbach, a Belleville landlord who lives in unincorporated Belleville. "All my old haunts I can't go to anymore."
Elizabeth Wager, 81, said there seems to be more crime throughout the city than there used to be.
The city's 2011 crime statistics showed decreases in most categories of violent crime, including murder, robbery, aggravated battery, burglary and theft.
There were increases, however, in the categories of forcible rape, motor vehicle theft and arson. The Police Department also made more drug arrests. Statistics from 2012 have not been released.
Wager said there are occasional car break-ins in her neighborhood by St. Teresa Catholic School and St. Teresa Catholic Church. But, in general, she said the area remains an ideal place to live.
Wager has been there for nearly 45 years and she's happy that young people are moving into the area.
Wager said more police patrols would make her feel safer but she's not sure how that will reduce the number of criminal incidents.
Melissa Pflueger, who lives down the block from Wager, said she's ready to move because of the crime.
Pflueger, 30, lives closer than Wager to the Dollar General Store in Wade Square that was robbed in January.
Pedestrians frequently cut through the alley behind her home to get to Wade Square and the Belleville Quick Stop, Pflueger said.
Some leave behind beer cans and empty tins of tobacco. Her car was broken into four times in three weeks.
Pflueger said she asked for more police patrol but the city is slow to respond in between big, violent incidents. Patrols might heighten after a serious incident but when police presence fades, then the problems return.
"Make me feel like you're doing something to help me," Pflueger said. "If the city doesn't care about us and protect us, then we're outta here."
Tara Johndrow, 31, also said she plans to move out of the Woodridge Estates area.
Johndrow said she thought the subdivision seemed safe until a stranger brazenly walked into her older neighbor's home one night.
Residents want more police patrols so they feel safe walking at night, Johndrow said. She also wants the city to do something about teens out after curfew.
"You don't want to live in an area that's not safe," Johndrow said.
Alan Yung, 74, said the city should borrow The Exterminator from the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department.
The 12,000-pound armored truck is equipped with video cameras that stream live video to police. The truck is used as a crime deterrent in neighborhoods where there are issues with robberies, drug dealing and other crimes.
Yung said residents are tired of the vandalism, assaults, break-ins to cars and homes and being harassed while out walking.
Yung works with neighborhood watches off North Belt East. He's actively talking to associations across regions to collaborate on these problems and find ways to improve the community look.
"Keep things looking presentable so the city looks good," Yung said. "Broken cars should not sit on the street day after day. Clean your yard and the street in front of your home or business."
Streets, sidewalks, homes
Tim McDermott believes the city could address the crime issue partially by keeping streets, sidewalks and parking lots clean, and maintaining the appearance and quality of the housing stock.
McDermott isn't a Belleville resident but his business, J.T. McDermott Remodeling, means Belleville is practically home to him. He's also president of the nonprofit West End Redevelopment Corp., which buys and rehabs dilapidated properties.
"If your community is clean, it props up better housing," McDermott said. "Better housing makes for better residents, more caring residents. And, of course, if you have those things going for you, you probably have a little less crime."
McDermott and Dovie Vowell-Steele, 70, of the Granvue neighborhood near Mount Carmel Cemetery, both love what the city has done to beautify downtown.
"We're an All-American City; we should keep it that way," said Vowell-Steele, a real estate agent who started the Highwood Neighborhood Association.
Crime will always be an issue, Vowell-Steele said, but the city can do its part by enforcing city codes and giving out citations for housing violations.
"People are paying high mortgages and high taxes," Vowell-Steele said. "If we're not taking care of homes and neighborhoods as a whole, you won't get your investment back if you sell your home."
Residents love the look of downtown Belleville, but many, like Kristin Summers, 32, wants city officials to spend more time, effort and resources fixing streets and sidewalks outside of downtown. Summers lives in Old Belleville.
Jan Voland, 54, said roads in the McClintock neighborhood have big potholes and old sewers are collapsing. The concrete that was fixed last summer is broken already, she said.
"I know they do the patch-and-fix but when will they actually fix it?" Voland asked. "We've all had sinkholes in our yards. Are they posting signs so these tractor-trailers know not to drive down these residential streets and dent the road?"
Gene Kasten, 82, said streets are breaking up in the area of the Timber Lake subdivision, which has mine subsidence issues. He worries the culverts are on the verge of collapse.
Charlotte Fenster, 72, lives near the MetroLink. She said she recently got a new street light in the alley, so now the only thing she would like is a complete sidewalk on Scheel Street so pedestrians can safely walk to and from the train stop.
"I hate for people to start thinking Belleville's a bad place to live because I enjoy it," Fenster said.
Melissa Hoffman, 35, who lives off East Main Street, also finds the city a great place to live. She thinks the schools are "awesome," her neighbors are great and downtown is a destination for parties and parades. And, she always tries to shop in Belleville.
"Lots of people are moving out of Belleville and I don't know why," Hoffman said. "I love Belleville."
Hoffman said the only thing she wants more of is community involvement.
"Let's try to be friendly to each other," Hoffman said.
McDermott said it would make a huge difference if people helped each other and promoted a sense of genuine kindness in the community.
"If we are true to our hearts, that's what we all want: a peaceful existence, pride in our city, neighbors to be cared for," McDermott said.
Jackie Laminack, 31, who works for the city as a police officer, said she wants to know how each mayoral candidate plans to keep businesses in Belleville, improve the west end and generate revenue for the city.
"What will they do to entice businesses to come?" said Laminack, who lives in the Union Avenue neighborhood.
Timber Lake resident Mike Jimenez wants the city to be more careful when spending taxpayer and tax increment financing money as incentives.
A TIF district captures increases in property tax revenue and uses the additional taxes to pay for infrastructure and other redevelopment in blighted areas.
Jimenez, 61, said city officials "throw TIF money around like candy."
The city then turns around and taxes residents more, such as the city's wheel tax and increased sales tax, Jimenez said.
A 0.25 percent sales tax increase went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, bringing the city's sales tax to $8.10 on a $100 purchase, excluding special business districts.
City leaders approved the sales tax increase after outcry from the public about a wheel tax in which registered vehicle owners paid $20 per vehicle.
"Let's try to do away with TIFs and throw the money back into the general fund," Jimenez said.
Residents are particularly concerned with how city officials decide to award development incentives to businesses, especially large and established companies.
"Eckert's was not a blighted area," Jimenez said. "Rusty Wagner -- how did he qualify for that? This isn't what TIFs are set up for."
In 2010, the city approved at least $975,000 in incentives for the $5.5 million expansion of Eckert's Inc. The package includes the creation of a tax increment financing district for the project and a special 1 percent business district tax on purchases at the site.
A city consultant said the area was blighted because of deterioration, excessive vacancies, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, among other reasons.
During a six year period, the city gave Wagner Motor Car Co. at least $2.4 million in the form of grants, rebate of incremental property tax increases and sales tax abatement. Wagner received incentives to buy 10 acres at Illinois 15, relocate his car dealership there and reinstate the General Motors franchise.
In exchange, Wagner committed to investing at least $6 million to build the new dealership, have 43 full-time equivalent employees and operate for at least 25 years.
Earlier this month, the Oliver C. Joseph Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership across Illinois 15 acquired Wagner. Mayor Mark Eckert said Wagner fulfilled most of the terms of the agreement.
Also this month, Eckert broke a tie vote and approved $200,000 in TIF money to Kroger Co. to build a new supermarket in Belleville. Half of the City Council disapproved of giving incentives to the largest grocery store chain in the country.
"All these companies have a lot of money," said Charles F. Beyer, 66, a retired city employee and Belleville landlord. "Can't they afford it themselves? There's not enough for the little guys."
Beyer lives in the Union Avenue neighborhood.
The money instead could be spent on replacing curbs, especially in the older parts of town, or hiring more police officers or street department workers.
Willie Wilson, 40, of the Henry Raab neighborhood, said the amount of taxes he pays into TIF No. 14 has doubled in recent years. Wilson said he doesn't mind paying his share but he doesn't see improvements to the blighted areas in that TIF.
Residents also said they were not happy with Eckert's proposal to spend $159,000 in TIF money to buy a building that houses Loflin Furniture as a way to address nuisance issues and stabilize the intersection.
The city paid about $35,000 more than fair market value for the building at 10610 W. Main St.
Marty Heskett, 60, who lives downtown, said the deal wasted taxpayer money.
"It's as if I'm selling my house for $100,000 and the city is paying me $160,000," Heskett said.
Ernest James, 82, said the city should instead spend money on cleaning up the site of a fire in downtown at Jackson and East Main streets or reopening the west end police substation.
"The officer doesn't have to be there his whole shift, but I'd like to see it manned," said James, who lives off 74th Street near St. Clair Country Club.
James, who has lived in Belleville for 30 years, also denounced the Loflin Furniture building purchase.
The city's focus should not be at the border of East St. Louis because it is too far away from the majority of the city, James said.
The City Council voted on the land deal, after hearing about the proposal in executive session, toward the end of a City Council meeting in January.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.