Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert and City Clerk Dallas Cook ended their face-off in a mayoral candidate forum Tuesday night with a handshake before an audience of about 100 people that featured supporters of both men.
Before the handshake, they highlighted the policy ideas where they agree and disagree.
They are sharply divided on whether the city should give tax incentives to businesses. Cook opposes all breaks for businesses, while Eckert calls them a good investment.
Cook and Eckert participated in the Highland Neighborhood Association candidate forum in the Douglas School gym at 125 Carlyle Ave. They are running in the April 4 election to be the next mayor of Belleville.
Eckert has been mayor since 2004, and Cook has been city clerk since 2013. Before he began serving as mayor, Eckert was on the City Council for seven years. Cook is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, Roger Cook, who was Belleville mayor for four years in the 1990s.
“I’m against all subsidies for any kind of corporation,” Cook said of tax incentives. “I’m against it 100 percent. Won’t give them out. Don’t need to.
I don’t feel safe in my home. Not one bit.
Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook
“If you’re going to come to our city and make money off our people, awesome; thank you. But we’re not going to pay you to do it.”
Eckert said developers spent $110 million on the Green Mount Commons shopping center off Carlyle Avenue that includes Walmart and Lowe’s. The developers received up to $19.8 million in tax incentives.
“We did not give them any money up front,” Eckert said. “They only get money back if they build it, if they pay their taxes, and then over 23 years we rebate them so much money. We didn’t give them any tax money up front. That’s a myth.”
Eckert said the city gets back about $1.3 million a year in sales tax from that shopping center.
“That was a smart business move,” Eckert said. “It was the right thing, but it gets publicized in the wrong way.”
In his opening statement, Eckert said he was “proud” of his record as mayor for the past 12 years.
“As you may know 12 or 13 years ago, downtown Belleville was looking pretty worn,” Eckert said. But he said the downtown scene has improved since the streetscape project valued at $7.1 million was completed.
“It really did pay off,” he said. “We have new shops and restaurants and nightlife,” he said.
Eckert also praised the growth of Lindenwood University-Belleville in the old Belleville West High School building, the opening of new shopping centers, a new fire house, a new police headquarters, $75 million in road projects and the renovation of City Hall.
“There’s much done, but there much more to do,” he said. “I still have the energy. We have a lot of work to do.”
In his opening statement, Cook highlighted public safety as the reason why he is running for mayor.
“Do you feel safe at home? How do your streets look? Do you feel good about your neighborhood? I don’t feel safe in my home. Not one bit,” Cook said. “I have a spotlight in my home. I’m not proud of that. I want to fix that. That’s why I’m running for mayor. I want you to feel safe in this town.”
Cook also noted his role as an outsider.
“Now I may not be part of the club. I’m not,” Cook said. “Just because I’m not part of the loop or the club that has run the city for a long time, I just want you to know that that doesn’t mean I have any negative feelings toward you, and it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be able to work” with everyone, Cook said.
After their opening statements, Cook and Eckert took questions from the audience.
We didn’t give them any tax money up front. That’s a myth.
Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert
Ward 1 Alderman Joe Hazel asked the candidates about their plans for fulfilling the needs of the police department, which drew a sharp exchange between Cook and Eckert.
“I’ve had my fill of Belleville politics,” Cook said. “It’s sickening.”
Cook said the St. Louis Blues recently changed coaches and promptly went on a winning streak. “We need a new coach,” Cook said. “It’s time for fresh ideas.”
Eckert responded that sometimes you already have a “Vince Lombardi,” and “you want to keep” him.
As far as specifics on the police department, Cook the city needs to put “more officers on the street.” Eckert noted that the number of officers has increased from 81 to 85 under his watch and that on most nights there are 10 officers on patrol.
The two candidates were asked about the possibility of getting a new pool to replace the municipal pool that closed in 2012.
Eckert said he has been in talks to get a “rec plex” open in the city, but he did not announce any details. Cook said he if elected he will “give children something positive to do.”
Cook, 31, and Eckert, 61, also have been invited to attend a mayoral debate sponsored by Lindenwood University-Belleville and the Belleville News-Democrat at 7 p.m. March 28. It is at Lindenwood at 2600 W. Main St.