Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, Treasurer Dean Hardt and City Clerk Dallas Cook replied to questions from the News-Democrat. Here are their responses:
Mayor Mark Eckert
1. During the election, you discussed the need to update the city's records management system for the Police and Housing departments, and technology in general citywide. What has your progress been on this effort?
After many years of investigation by the Police Department and the mayor's administration, we have purchased a new records management system. The Police Department has been training on the new Records Management System (RMS) for the last couple of months. The department's RMS went live Nov. 13. Sworn officers and civilian employees received extensive hands-on training prior to the start date. The response from users has been very positive. The ease of entering and querying data is remarkable. The RMS coupled with the department's new mobile system has allowed officer efficiencies in report preparation, warrant and vehicle search capabilities to soar. Investigative case management, evidence collection, storage and tracking abilities are instant and precise. The department continues to fine-tune the system to address our specific needs and long range goals.
2. You have had about a year to evaluate whether revenue from video gaming is steady enough to help the city hire an additional police officer. What is your position on this issue now?
My recommendation remains as it was before the election: That the city wait at least 18 months to see a pattern of reliable gaming revenue before we hire new officer(s). It is important to have a realistic picture of the gaming revenue stream. Seven months of gaming revenue collections is insufficient. The process for approval by the state of Illinois has been slow. Ten establishments in Belleville have been approved for gaming by the state. The city received $17,835 in gaming revenue from these establishments in the last seven months. Eight additional establishments have recently received approval from the state for gaming but have generated no gaming revenue for the city at this time, and another seven have applied for gaming but have not been approved. With the cost of a new officer totaling about $80,000, the projected gaming revenues fail to support hiring a police officer. I remain firmly committed to hiring more officers and gaming revenues are certainly a part of that equation. What remains unclear at this point is how much and when revenues from gaming will be sufficient to support hiring an officer. I am, however, still committed to hiring at least two more police officers in early 2014. The 0.25 percent sales tax has been extended to support our general fund and we continue to monitor our budget prioritizing police hires.
3. The city just passed the Crime-Free Housing Ordinance, which your administration has worked on for years. What hurdles have you encountered implementing the program and what action have you taken to address these issues?
The biggest hurdle in the implementation of the Crime-Free Housing program has been the notification and certification of more than 1,500 landlords along with the property registration of more than 6,000 rental units in the city. To complete this task, all landlords were notified by letter of the Crime-Free Housing requirements and six certification training seminars were conducted. To date 6,109 rental units have been registered into the Crime Free Housing program and only 82 landlords are in need of their certification. An additional police officer will be added to the Crime-Free Housing team in the Housing Department for a total of three staffers by Jan. 1. The Crime-Free Housing Committee was approved at the City Council meeting on Nov. 4. All promises have been kept according to the approved ordinance.
City Treasurer Dean Hardt
1. One of the pillars of your election campaign was to evaluate the city treasurer's position to see whether it could be eliminated to save taxpayers' money. Do you still think the role is unnecessary?
Shortly after taking office I was immediately tasked with working through the implementation of a new software system of one of our service providers to the city, as well as researching and recommending to the City Council a sewer rate increase that did not exceed the amount needed to ensure that funding needs were met to improve the city's waste water treatment system now and into the future. However, I have confirmed that the employees of the treasurer department are doing an exceptional job of performing their duties by providing the checks and balances required of the position. With this in mind, I have yet to determine if the elimination of the position is practical, and I feel additional time is needed to follow through with my pledge to adequately research if the position can be eliminated.
2. During the election, you said you would work with staff to "improve technology and customer service," such as updating the records management system. How have you done this?
I would like to make sure that the sewer billing and collections departments do a good job performing their duties with the tools available and I have been working with them to determine where efficiencies can be created to allow for more consistent billing and quicker response to citizen inquiries. I have worked diligently with our current software provider to implement changes to our current version to improve services to our residents immediately. I am also working with them in the design, implementation and rollout of a new version of the software that should occur early next year. This will provide additional features for billing accounts and the ability to research accounts specific to individual residents. I have made it known that I welcome all ideas that could improve these services to the citizens of Belleville.
3. You said you would work with landlords to better inform them of delinquent accounts and work with debt collection agencies at an earlier stage. What progress have you made on this goal?
I have had discussions with many landlords regarding past due balances left behind by tenants and I have had meetings with current collection providers and new providers to determine the best method of collecting debts. It is unfortunate that in most cases the delinquent account holders will move out of Belleville and thus outside of our reach. I have found that the state has established a new program called "Local Debt Recovery" that hopes to give us an additional tool to recover these bad debts. I have let property owners, landlords and management companies know that as treasurer, I am available to help them in any way that I can. I also made them aware that I am open to ideas they may have to recover delinquent funds.
City Clerk Dallas Cook
1. While campaigning, you said you would hold monthly meetings to give residents "direct and immediate answers" to questions they have about the city. Have you done this yet?
In May I requested the schedule of availability for the Council Chambers to hold my monthly Town Hall meetings. Upon asking the mayor's secretary, she responded by email, "The mayor would like to discuss this with you first." After not hearing from him, I caught him in the hallway and questioned why I had not received the Council Chambers schedule. He stated that we should put my idea on the back-burner because the citizens will just come and be negative. I disagreed and told him my plan was to get citizens more involved in the city's process so they feel welcomed and understood. Therefore, to carry on with my plan I shall take it directly to the people. After the holiday season, I will contact the zone leaders of all the Belleville Neighborhood Partnership zones to schedule a Town Hall-style meeting with each group.
2. Before you were elected, you criticized the clerk office's "archaic" technology, namely the typewriters used by city employees. Now that you manage the office, what technology improvements have you made?
Thus far all technological improvements during my short tenure have been hand-me-downs from Scott Air Force Base and have been acquired at no cost to the city. We have received new monitors, hard drives and printers. Currently, I am still working with the previous clerk's budget, which limits my ability to purchase new software. The fiscal year for the city ends on April 30. Therefore, May 1 will be the first day I have my newly prioritized budget.
3. The city clerk acts as the record keeper of the city. During the election season, you discussed the difficulty in acquiring public information and documents. Have you been able to provide information to the public without requiring residents to fill out FOIA requests and go through city attorney approval, as you pledged?
In the interest of saving the city staff time and paper, I have worked personally with citizens to find information they would like to review instead of making them fill out a request form. When a citizen comes to the clerk's office with a request, we first locate what they are interested in. Next, I scan the documents and send the information to my email. And, finally, I forward the information to their email. The formal FOIA process in the city is a drain on city staff and a waste of paper and ink. Whenever possible, I do my best to tell citizens and aldermen that before filling out a FOIA, they should come talk to me first. If I have the information readily available, I will give it to you on the spot. I have had extensive training on FOIA law and I'm well-versed on what information can be made public.