Elections

Accusations fly in Madison County Board chairman’s race

Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, left, a Democrat, is challenged by Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, a Republican.
Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan, left, a Democrat, is challenged by Treasurer Kurt Prenzler, a Republican.

A contentious race for County Board chairman leads the ballot in Madison County, as a long-time incumbent and challenger trade accusations of corruption or incompetence.

Democratic Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan is running for his fourth term as chairman. His opponent is Republican Treasurer Kurt Prenzler.

Dunstan was first elected as board chairman in 2002, when the chairmanship was decided by a vote of the County Board rather than a popular vote. Dunstan then worked to make the chairmanship an elected office, and since 2004 all voters have had the option of selecting their County Board chairman. Dunstan has served more than 30 years on the County Board, and says that his highest achievements in this term have been reducing the county’s tax levy for three years in a row — $1.6 million less this year than last year, he said.

Incumbent Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan explains why he should be re-elected Nov. 8.

He also said they have now rebuilt the county levees to the 100-year flood level, and describes the county as being in the strongest financial position of any county in Illinois. “We are financially secure and debt-free,” Dunstan said. “Those are all big accomplishments.”

The levees in particular have been a focus of Dunstan’s last two terms.

“If we had not gotten the levees to that position, we would not have the economic development that we have today, such as Amazon coming in,” Dunstan said. “That was important, that was 1,500 jobs… Since they’ve been here, there are other companies looking at locating here. We are excited about Madison County as a logistics hub, and the bottom line is to bring jobs into the county.... In spite of what’s going on in the state of Illinois, Madison County works.”

If re-elected, Dunstan said his focus would be on jobs. Twice he has gone to Washington D.C. to meet with lawmakers and has testified before the U.S. Department of Commerce and the office of the U.S. trade representative on the impact of foreign steel on the economy of Madison County.

Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler explains why he should be elected Madison County Board chairman on Nov. 8.

“We need to get Granite City Steel re-opened,” Dunstan said. “They got hit not just by the tariffs, but by making just one type of steel… I’d like to see Granite City Steel become an integrated plant producing other types of steel. But I think it will come back.”

Prenzler was first elected as treasurer in 2010, his first elected office. He was the first Republican countywide officer since current Congressman John Shimkus served as treasurer from 1990 to 1996.

In his six years as treasurer, Prenzler said his highest achievements have been keeping delinquent tax sale interest rates under 4 percent, reducing the operating cost of his office by 30 percent, and changing Madison County’s investment strategy. He states that for nine years, the treasurer’s office was investing through a Little Rock, Ark., firm without taking competitive bids. He called it “a lot of shenanigans, in my opinion.” He ended the relationship because he said it was outside of appropriate investment procedure. Since then, he said he has invested “legally and safely” in local banks, greatly increasing the percentage of Madison County’s funds held by local institutions.

“We’re not going to Las Vegas with that money,” Prenzler said, but he believes county treasurers should invest with “safety, liquidity and yield” in that order, and he believes his investments are better for being more secure. He said all the treasurers’ offices he knows follow the strategy he has used rather than the longer-term investments, which he said are more likely to lose money if interest rates swing around.

However, that is one of the issues on which Dunstan and Prenzler differ. Dunstan said by selling off those long-term investments prior to maturity, Madison County lost millions in investment proceeds. “At one point he’s had $100 million making 2.5 percent interest,” Dunstan said. “If you’re a senior citizen with a money market account, you can make 2.5 percent interest. It’s outrageous.”

Prenzler also said he believes his political achievements are part of his successes in the past term. He cited his efforts in organizing opposition to a 2011 sales tax increase, a 2013 jail renovation bond sale and his current advocacy of a referendum that would lower Madison County’s property tax rate by 5 cents.

If elected, Prenzler said his focus would be on ethics and reducing taxes. He would like to see more automation for contract bidding, greater publication of appointments to boards and committees, and eliminating some perks of service.

“One of the reasons I’m running for county chairman is that I feel I have fixed the problems in the treasurer’s office, and I feel there are countywide problems that need to be addressed,” Prenzler said. “I think it’s time for a change. I have never worked a day for any unit of government before (being elected treasurer). It’s better to have new people in government, not lifelong politicians.”

Tax referendum

The property tax referendum is another area on which the candidates disagree. It has been strongly opposed by law enforcement officials such as State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons and Sheriff John Lakin, who have said they would anticipate significant budget cuts and layoffs in law enforcement if it is passed: an estimated $600,000 from the sheriff’s department and $200,000 from the state’s attorney’s office.

But Prenzler disagrees, stating that he believes the tax cut won’t affect law enforcement at all. “This is an easy tax decrease to vote for, because it will not result in anyone losing their job,” he said. He said the county has a “padded budget” with $2 million to $3 million more levied than they intend to spend.

That surplus is then transferred into reserves, which then is used for capital improvements: doing building renovations and other construction projects without debt. In St. Clair County, Dunstan said, there is a separate tax rate for building projects, but Madison County does not have that tax and must use its general fund for construction.

“This is where he’s fooled the public,” Dunstan said. “It’s not a surplus. This is how we’ve done our capital projects for 30 years.”

Capital projects include the renovations of the Madison County Jail, repairs and renovations at the courthouse, purchase of police cars, even elevator repairs — as much as $22 million of projects waiting in line for that funding, Dunstan said.

But Prenzler said he believes the county’s reserves are excessive and that the county “should not levy what it doesn’t need.” When asked how the county would pay for building projects, he said he believes the county can afford them without the surplus. “We would review a lot of these projects, but we have very healthy reserves at this point,” Prenzler said.

Dunstan said the pro-referendum effort has misled the voters. “He’s telling people he’s going to reduce their taxes by 20 percent,” he said. “If this gets approved, a $100,000 home on today’s rate would save $10.35. The people who are going to gain on this will be the big companies like Phillips 66… This is not going to save money for taxpayers, it’s going to be minute.”

Dunstan disagrees with Prenzler’s statement that the budget is “padded.”

“We have 325 fewer employees now than when I took office,” Dunstan said. “If this thing gets approved, we will live by it. But if we get hit by recession again, we will have massive layoffs. And another thing: we are in the state of Illinois, and they’re having financial problems. If they change the formulas on replacement taxes and income taxes — both of which have been on the table in the budget negotiations — we will go from being in the best financial shape to one of the worst. It’s reckless.”

Prenzler acknowledged that the county is not currently levying at its full tax rate, and so it will not reduce taxes by the full 5 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value. But he said he believes the county should not levy any more funds than it needs.

Accusations

The election has been marked by negative ads and accusations in the media and on social networks. Dunstan has faced allegations that he did not do enough to stop the corruption that eventually sent former treasurer and fellow Democrat Fred Bathon to federal prison, while Prenzler has been accused of using his office for political purposes and costing taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuits:

• Dunstan has leveled accusations of mismanagement and poor judgment against Prenzler regarding the treasurer’s court battles. Prenzler recently lost a discrimination lawsuit filed by former comptroller Linda Dunnagan, during which he repeatedly refused offers of settlement. Prenzler said he eliminated Dunnagan’s position for budgetary reasons, not because of her illness.

The lawsuit’s tally currently stands at an estimated $1.2 million. Dunstan said the suit could have been settled long ago for less than the cost of the legal defense. He said there has been another attempt to settle the case since the verdict, but by refusing it, Prenzler and the county will now be responsible for Dunnagan’s legal fees as well as its own.

“It’s been a disaster for the county,” Dunstan said. He said county leaders sometimes have to make a decision to settle lawsuits for small amounts to save the cost of legal defense, and believes that should have been done before a federal jury returned the verdict against Prenzler. “It’s outrageous to me that we cannot get him to admit wrong,” Dunstan said. “We need to move on.”

But Prenzler said he intends to appeal again, and still does not believe that Dunnagan was disabled.

“I promised the taxpayers when I ran in 2010 I would reduce the cost of the office by 30 percent,” Prenzler said. “I did eliminate a position — I’m a CPA, my chief deputy at the time was a CPA, and we determined we did not need a comptroller… I disagree with the verdict, and we’re looking at appealing that. But I did not discriminate against anyone who was disabled.”

Prenzler also is currently embroiled in a St. Clair County lawsuit over its property tax sales. Prenzler’s connection stems from a press conference he held during the 2014 election implying that St. Clair County Treasurer Charles Suarez was rigging tax sales in a similar pattern as former Madison County treasurer Bathon. Suarez is the brother-in-law of Maureen Suarez, who unsuccessfully challenged Prenzler as treasurer in that election.

Dunstan and members of the County Board’s finance committee have argued that Prenzler should not be using county attorneys to represent himself in that lawsuit, as they say it is a political issue involving Prenzler alone and not the county. Dunstan has alleged the press conference in 2014 was done on county time and using county employees.

Prenzler said he saw it as providing his expertise in tax sales to another county, and his subpoenaed depositions in that lawsuit thus are related to his work as treasurer. “I was approached by a tax buyer in St. Clair County inquiring about the results of their tax sale,” Prenzler said. “All I said was that we saw patterns that were similar.”

Gibbons has said that as long as Prenzler maintains that the suit is connected to his office as treasurer, the state’s attorney’s office will continue to provide his legal representation.

Dunstan also said the county has negotiated its contracts with AFSCME, but even after all other county officials signed off on the contract, Prenzler refused to sign it. The contract is in force without his signature, Dunstan said, but Prenzler’s refusal to sign the contracts has led to a charge of unfair labor practices and the county has now paid more than $10,000 in legal fees defending itself.

• Meanwhile, Prenzler has accused Dunstan of taking too many perks as chairman. He criticized Dunstan for accepting a county car, and for using a county credit card for personal charges which were later reimbursed.

“I have my own car, and I plan to drive it,” Prenzler said. “If I have official business in Springfield, I would submit mileage for that rather than driving a county vehicle.”

Prenzler said he has already declined the pension plan offered to elected officials, and if elected chairman, he would decline perks like the car. He said he was surprised to find out that some county officials have a county credit card, and would decline that as well.

Dunstan was recently criticized for some personal charges on his card, which he said were honest mistakes. Dunstan said he has turned in his county credit card because it was too easy to mix up his cards. Any personal charges were long ago refunded, he said. “The county was never out any money, it was an accidental misuse of the card,” he said.

In the meantime, Dunstan said, Prenzler has been using treasurer’s staff to examine Dunstan’s credit card statements, which Dunstan said should be the auditor’s job.

• Prenzler’s past has also been criticized by leading Democrats, including a record of violations at the Missouri day care center he owns. The Good Shepherd Day Care center, located in St. Louis, was cited in May 2013 for 32 violations including rodent droppings and roaches, spiders, a playground that did not meet safety parameters, insufficient food provided to children, bedding that was not changed after it was soiled and plastic bags, yarn and hand sanitizer left within reach of children.

Reinspection in November 2013 found 21 violations, and by May 2014 it was down to 17 violations. It was reinspected later that month, and found to still have 16 violations. Since then, the center has failed four inspections and passed five, with the most recent failure in July 2016. However, its most recent inspection in August shows no further violations, as reported by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Prenzler said he is glad that day care centers are so closely inspected and believes the center now is well-managed with a clean inspection. “This doesn’t have anything to do with the chairman’s office,” Prenzler said. “If the chairman had a good record to defend, he would.”

• Prenzler has also criticized Dunstan for the decision to bar Veterans Assistance Commission Superintendent Bradley Lavite from county property following Lavite’s mental breakdown attributed to combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. The VAC and the county have ended up in court over the ongoing issue of Lavite’s access to the building in which his office is situated. Currently there is a lawsuit pending in Madison County courts and a civil rights lawsuit pending in federal court.

“Based on what I know, I think Brad Lavite should be able to come back to his office,” Prenzler said. “In the admin building, we have people who have been accused of crimes visiting the state’s attorney’s office or probation office, and we have deputies in the building who are armed. From what I understand, Lavite has been cleared… There are many more people going in and out of the building every day who have had issues with violence. He should be permitted to go back to his office.”

Dunstan has said he is in favor of returning Lavite to his office, but believes the county needs additional assurances because it might be legally liable if another incident were to take place.

But Prenzler also faced his own accusations about his attitudes toward the military, specifically women. In a letter to the editor published in a St. Louis newspaper, Prenzler quoted from the Bible as he opposed women’s presence in combat. “Feminists have successfully redefined military service from readiness to fight a war to job opportunity,” he wrote. “Our cowardly military hierarchy has acquiesced to this social engineering in exchange for its own job security and promotion. Meanwhile, there is sex in the barracks and the U.S. Navy has transformed itself into a floating brothel.”

Prenzler acknowledged the letter, but said it has been overblown in the negative ads and that the voters have rejected it by supporting him in past elections. He said his office has made an effort to work with the VAC and help veterans understand their tax benefits.

“In my office, I actually have a female veteran, and she’s a member of my staff,” he said. “The letter had to do with women in combat. If you talk to any veteran, there are many levels of service… That issue has nothing to do with the office.”

• Prenzler has accused Dunstan of accepting campaign donations from county vendors. Dunstan said all his campaign disclosures reveal who has donated to him, and everything goes to the lowest bidder in Madison County contracts.

“I think I get money from Democrats and, believe it or not, Republicans,” he said. “We bid everything out in Madison County and we take the low bid.” Dunstan said they also have a panel of three Democrats and three Republicans putting together a computer system for bids by email.

“People donate to my campaign because they like the smoothness of our county and how we operate,” Dunstan said. “Democrats and Republicans truly work together. We don’t always agree, and we have differences. But for the most part, they work together as a team and we can be proud of it.”

Prenzler has also faced accusations of helping political allies through his office. In 2014, he was accused of helping influential Republican Don Weber buy his ex-wife’s house in a no-bid property tax sale, which led three County Board members to call for his resignation. Prenzler has maintained he believes it was legal, while the county’s attorneys have said they advised against it. “There was never over the years any objection from tax buyers,” he said, because the pre-bidding tax sales had to be made at zero interest. “This was considered more of a convenience.”

He was also criticized for giving a 55 percent raise to his deputy treasurer, Doug Hulme, who has also assisted him with political efforts. Prenzler said this was more of a promotion than a raise: When former chief deputy Jeremy Plank left, he hired Hulme at a much lower rate than Plank. “When it became apparent he was doing a good job, I raised him up,” Prenzler said. “I don’t think that’s unusual in the business world.”

Other offices:

• Democratic incumbent State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons is being challenged by Republican Ronald Williams.

Gibbons said his violent crimes unit has a 100 percent conviction rate in murder trials, and he has partnered with other law enforcement, health care and social agencies to combat the heroin epidemic in Madison County. If re-elected, he said his top priority would be the creation of a public integrity investigation unit to prosecute public corruption cases.

Williams, 74, a former public defender, said he has defended more than 2,500 felony and 6,000 juvenile cases. Williams, a U.S. Army veteran, said he will reduce the number of plea bargains offered in Madison County and the jail population.

Auditor Rick Faccin, Coroner Steve Nonn, Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida and Recorder Amy Meyer are running unopposed. All are Democrats.

For the Madison County Board, the candidates are:

• In District 2, Republican Donald Moore and independent Tyler Oberkfell.

• In District 3, Republican Philip Chapman and independent Chris Durbin.

• In District 4, incumbent Democrat Kelly Tracy and Republican challenger David Michael.

• In District 6, Democrat Brad Beck and Republican Raymond Wesley.

• In District 13, Democrat Greg McCalley and Republican James Futrell.

• In District 15, incumbent Democrat Bill Robertson and Republican challenger Chris Slusser.

• In District 17, incumbent Democrat Ann Gorman and Republican challenger Bob Hulme.

• In District 18, incumbent Democrat Jack Minner and Republican challenger Fred Schulte.

• In District 19, Democrat Michael Charles Parkinson and Republican challenger Kathy Goclan.

• In District 26, Democrat Ross Breckenridge and Republican Erica Conway Harriss.

• In District 27, incumbent Democrat Joe Semanisin and Republican challenger Clint Jones.

• In District 28, incumbent Democrat Liz Dalton and Republican challenger Harold Lee Wathan Jr.

• District 1 incumbent Republican Judy Kuhn, District 7 Republican incumbent Michael Walters, District 11 incumbent Republican Brad Maxwell, District 20 incumbent Democrat Kristen Novacich, District 22 incumbent Democrat Nick Petrillo, District 25 incumbent Republican Lisa Ciampoli, and District 29 incumbent Democrat Larry Trucano are running unopposed

The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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