BELLEVILLE — Mayor Mark Eckert believes he has positioned the city for future growth and opportunities but his opponents in the April 9 election see bad spending decisions and waste.
Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden and Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore, both independents, say city leaders must change budget priorities to grow the Police Department. And, money collected from tax increment financing districts must be spent with more discretion and on intended purposes -- for infrastructure improvements and to develop blighted areas.
Eckert, of the Belleville Good Government Party, said the city's priority is public safety, with 35 percent of the general fund budget going to the Police Department. The city did not reduce its police force but in other departments the city has eliminated since 2006 about 30 positions through layoffs or retirements.
Eckert says his administration has kept a trimmed, balanced budget despite the recession and less state income tax revenue.
The city lost upward of $700,000 when the state cut the per-capita reimbursement rate and then had to make do with payments that lag about three months behind, out about $1 million at a time.
To make up for late payments, the city first imposed a wheel tax of $20 per vehicle but soon replaced it with a 0.25 percent sales tax increase that was approved with a sunset clause set for Dec. 31, 2013.
Eckert and Elmore say they support extending the extra tax.
Eckert said the tax increase brought in $1.2 million last year, saving the city from cutting police staff. He said losing that amount, about 5 percent of the city's proposed $26.7 million general fund budget, would mean layoffs. City leaders are currently reviewing a $103 million budget for 2013-14.
Hayden, of the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville, did not vote for the tax increase and isn't convinced the city needed it. By year's end, the state might be caught up on income tax payments to the city, Hayden said.
Elmore voted for the tax and because the money goes into the general fund and could be used to hire more police officers.
In the sluggish economy, Eckert said TIF made it possible to grow the city in a balanced way. The city used TIF to develop the Belleville Crossing and Green Mount Commons shopping areas, Bicentennial Park and Lindenwood University and its surroundings.
Eckert said that regardless of how anyone feels about TIF, the economic tool was created long ago and is available for the city to use. He would create a new TIF if it fits the project.
So how does TIF work?
Property taxes typically get divided between various taxing bodies, such as school districts and the library. When a TIF district is created, taxing bodies stop getting the full amount of property taxes. Instead, any increases in property tax revenue in that district is funneled to a separate account. Local governments then use the money collected from the captured increases to make infrastructure improvements and spur development in "blighted" areas.
Eckert said the turnaround at Lindenwood University-Belleville shows how TIF can be used to improve an area and bring up property values. Residents see the expansion and feel encouraged to improve their own properties.
"I believe there's a solid case showing the improvements we've made and there's a domino effect that goes with all these projects," Eckert said. "People will reinvest when they see and feel there are improvements."
The city gives the university a net amount of $130,000 from TIF District No. 3 each year. The city is at the halfway mark of this 20-year agreement. In turn, the university made more than $20 million in improvements to the campus, not including the new residence halls to be built.
Hayden and Elmore believe residents pay more in property taxes when other taxing bodies levy more money to make up for revenue diverted to the TIF.
Eckert said school districts in Belleville are not losing money because of the city's 19 TIF districts, which totaled $17.4 million at the end of the last fiscal year.
Finance Director Jamie Maitret said half of the money from TIF No. 3, the district with the largest balance, goes back to schools. TIF No. 3 brings in about $13 million each year and carries a balance of about $2 million.
Last year, $5.4 million of TIF No. 3 went back to Belleville School Districts 118 and 201, Maitret said. Less than $395,000, or 3.3 percent, was spent on business incentives. The rest of the fund paid for infrastructure improvements.
With the exception of three TIFs that expired in 2011, all the TIFs were either created or extended while Eckert was mayor or alderman.
Eckert said the TIF districts for the Belleville Crossing and Green Mount Commons shopping centers also turned over half of revenue, about $1.2 million, to schools last year.
The two shopping areas also produce a combined $1.6 million in sales tax revenue for the city yearly. Eckert said the two TIF districts are project driven, which means the developers only reap the incentives, a rebate of part of the property taxes they pay, if they fulfill the sales tax quota and other promises.
Eckert said the city might not have gotten these developments if Belleville was not able to offer TIF incentives. The city annexed Belleville Crossing when the TIF was created.
Hayden said that under Eckert, the city creates TIF districts at areas that are not blighted and give incentives to special-interest projects that should not qualify.
"(Eckert) argues that without TIFs we wouldn't be able to do things -- and he's wrong on that," Hayden said.
Hayden said the city should have found a retail buyer for the former Meredith Home located at the Public Square instead of agree to turn the property into a park.
"If we can't market the Meredith Home downtown -- which is our Boardwalk in (the board game) Monopoly -- then it doesn't say much for the future of downtown Belleville," Hayden said.
The city purchased the Meredith Home in 2010 from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville. The city used money from a private donation to pay off a $492,101 loan for the property. In turn, the city will build a park in honor of the donors' late daughter. The proposed budget includes $400,000 of TIF money to demolish the building.
Hayden also believes the city should levy the money it actually needs for specific projects. If the cause is worthy, residents will approve the tax, he said.
Hayden said this will protect taxpayers from having to pay for "surprise" projects, such as $1 million to buy 40 acres on 20th Street that is the new Bicentennial Park.
Hayden voted for the project after he raised concerns that aldermen were not told of the overall, long-term costs. The city got a $400,000 family trust to build Kimball Plaza at the park but the city has paid at least $900,000 for the rest of the park.
Hayden said that if he is elected, he will try to dissolve some of Belleville's TIF districts that have fulfilled their intended use. No new TIF districts were created when Hayden served as alderman from 1993-97. He was re-elected in 2011 and has not voted for the creation or extension of a TIF.
Elmore said the city needs to have a current comprehensive plan on the city's growth and needs so city leaders aren't forced into impulse decisions when a problem or business opportunity arises.
Updates to the city's plan from 2000 are ongoing and in the proposed budget.
Elmore criticizes Eckert's plan announced earlier this year to spend $159,000 to buy Loflin Furniture at 10610 W. Main St. because of nuisance issues and turn the property into green space.
The city should have explored other options to help Loflin or at least plan to keep the building as a tax generating property, Elmore said. The money also could be spent to help existing small businesses.
Hayden and Elmore voted against the Loflin Furniture deal.
Eckert has said West Main Street and Illinois 157 is an entranceway to the city and needs to be stabilized.
Elmore said he is not in favor of creating new TIF districts. Since he was elected in 2009, Elmore voted to create a TIF district for the Belle Valley III Industrial Park and to extend the life of TIF No. 10 for the Lower Richland Creek project.
Elmore said he would prioritize existing TIF money for improvements in this order: infrastructure; eligible projects for the Police Department; business developments; and parks and libraries.
Elmore said a low priority would be giving incentives to a national grocery chain to build at 1703 North Belt West.
Eckert broke a tie vote in February on a deal that gave Kroger Co. $200,000 from TIF to build a Ruler Foods at the site of the old Bel-Air Bowl if the business invests at least $2.9 million, among other criteria.
Elmore and Hayden voted against the deal.
At the time, Belleville was the only city of about 10 contenders for Kroger's business to offer incentives.
"If only one offers $200,000, well duh, we're their No. 1 choice," Elmore said. "Why wouldn't we be?"
Elmore said the city should have held its ground and only offer incentives if Kroger agreed to build where the city needs a store and not within miles of five existing stores.
Eckert said the store is expected to generate $75,000 in sales tax revenue -- enough to pay a first year police officer's salary -- and raise property taxes at a site that has been vacant for six years.
Eckert said his opponents criticize his efforts, but he weighs every opportunity to grow the city.
"All our decisions have been based on growing Belleville and, yeah, sometimes there's risk involved," Eckert said. "But the CEO of this city better be constantly trying to grow sales tax or this city will start to decline. If we're not growing the city, the city's going to die."