Candidate profile: Mark Eckert

Name: Mark W. Eckert

Age: 61

Immediate family members: Rita Eckert, wife; Lt. Col. Matthew Eckert, MD and Carly Eckert, MD, son and daughter-in-law; Kate Eckert, daughter; Luke and Erika Eckert, son and daughter-in-law; Lucy Eckert, daughter; and Jackson Eckert, grandson.

Town: Belleville

Office seeking: Mayor

Occupation: Mayor

Previous and current elected offices and terms served: May 1, 1997 to Dec. 20, 2004 — Alderman, Ward 5, city of Belleville; Dec. 20, 2004 — appointed mayor, city of Belleville; May 1, 2005 to present, elected mayor, city of Belleville (elected 2005, 2009, 2013 — each to a four-year term)

Why are you running? I am running to continue the leadership of Belleville and help move the vision of this great city forward. I, like so many others, have volunteered for many years to be a part of the positive improvements in Belleville. My wife and I are also business owners in Belleville. I believe in the city of Belleville, and I want to ensure that the city remains a great place to raise a family. My wife and I have raised our children here, and I am committed to further strengthening our community. I love Belleville.

What is the most important issue facing the city of Belleville? How would you approach it? The most important issue facing the city of Belleville is to continue to market and grow the city, with a constant, steady hand on the serious financial challenges our state and the economy present us. We must live within our budget, while continuing to improve the services we provide the residents of Belleville, including: police, fire, streets, sanitation, parks and recreation, etc.

In 2013, the Belleville City Council approved a 0.25 percent sales tax increase that is set to expire this year. Explain whether you support or oppose the continuation of this tax and whether you support either or both of the 1 percent sales tax referendums on the April ballot in St. Clair County? Unfortunately, we do need to continue the 0.25 percent sales tax. Sales tax is paid by everyone who lives in and visits our city. The increase was added because the state of Illinois has been cutting and holding funds. This quarter percent sales tax earns the city approximately $1.25 million each year. This is a significant amount of money, and without it, the city council would have a very difficult time balancing the budget. This would lead to cuts in essential services. The other two proposed 1 percent sales tax increases are also facing hardships due to our state. No one wants to pay for more taxes of any kind, however, our schools are facing the pain of the state not paying them, and if the state freezes property taxes, they are in even more trouble. I have always supported our schools and public safety, but ultimately the voters will decide on these two proposals.

In recent years, the city has granted various tax incentives to businesses. Explain whether you would support or oppose tax incentives for businesses. My approach to tax incentives is to look at each project on a case by case basis. My belief is that when a business cannot get started or grow without some assistance, then the city should work with them to see what is available that might help them accomplish their goals. The city invests in these projects. In 2015, the city gained $500,000 more than it issued in incentives. In fact, the city only puts in 2 percent to 7 percent of the project cost. Their goals must also benefit the city. For example, the project must create more jobs and more sales tax, and help jumpstart a blighted area. For example, 4204 West Main sat empty for many years. Working with the owners to bring in a restaurant and new brewery that has created jobs, increased tax revenue, created positive attention to the area, and filled an empty space on Main Street, prove that offering incentives can have lasting, positive effects. The risk taken with this incentive has paid off. 4204 is expanding operations to 6401 West Main Street, another empty building. This shopping center has greatly needed repair for many years. Tax incentives are the right thing to do in many instances, to help move Belleville in the right direction.

What actions would you take to fight crime in Belleville? Explain whether you think the city can afford to hire more police officers. Being a former police officer, and the son of a 25-year veteran of the Belleville Police Department, I take crime very seriously. Ten years ago, when I appointed Bill Clay as Chief of Police, I made my selection based on his education, his experience, and his leadership abilities. Chief Clay has worked hard to increase training for all officers. He created a full-service Crime Scene Unit and Forensic Lab. The Crime Scene Investigators have all received specialized training and attended the State Police Crime Scene Academy. These men and women are able to analyze, collect and process all crime scenes to include homicides. The traffic unit now has two full-time ‘accident reconstructionists’ and along with the State Police are able to collect data from any vehicle’s ‘black box.’ He also added mobile weight scales in traffic to protect the city’s infrastructure and roads from truck damage at a cost of $24,200. All of which was paid for by Drug Asset Forfeiture Funds. The department uses special field details and specialty units to aggressively go after crimes in the city and problem areas. Additionally, under his leadership we have a professional investigative unit. All but one of the investigators are members of the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis. Finally, the city’s Uniformed Crime Reporting data remains statistically unchanged in both percentages and raw numbers over a 17-year period. Eighty-eight percent of the crimes reported under UCR were property crimes: burglary, theft and vehicle theft. The remaining categories: murder, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated battery and arson accounted for 12 percent. Bill Clay conducts his duties in a very professional manner. Since I have been mayor, we have hired four new full-time officers. The cost involved in hiring a new officer is approximately $82,000 for the first year. This does not include vehicle expenses or specialized equipment. Unfortunately, taking into account the 2008 recession, and facing the reality of the serious financial conditions of the state of Illinois, the city continuously faces money being cut and payments delayed. These challenges make it very difficult to hire new employees with an uncertain financial future. The new police facility and garage that opened in the summer of 2016, were long overdue, and have immensely helped the police department to more effectively execute their duties. Technology updates were not only necessary, but will help with officer safety and performance.

Why should people vote for you? I have a proven record of accomplishments: the redevelopment of the downtown streetscape, which includes the recently completed North Illinois project, completion of Fire House #4, which helped lower our Insurance Services Office rating to a No. 2, the new state of the art police station, city hall renovations to make the building Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, over $75 million of needed road improvements, and two new shopping centers. I currently serve as president on the Southwestern Illinois Council of Mayors. For the past two years, I have worked to bring local mayors together to address both regional concerns and concerns with the state of Illinois, including unfunded mandates and additional cuts to local governments. I also represent the city of Belleville in a leadership capacity as first vice president on the Illinois Municipal League Board. If re-elected, I will be appointed as president of the Illinois Municipal League in September 2017. This will be the first time a mayor from Belleville will have served in this leadership office. These positions are an honor, being selected by fellow mayors throughout the state of Illinois. I have a passion for the city of Belleville and I have worked very hard developing relationships with a number of important entities, such as: Scott Air force Base, local schools, business leaders, and developers. I want to continue building on these relationships in order to see the completion of these and other projects. I live my life modeling the principles of character. Honesty, respect, responsibility and integrity: I take pride in having these qualities as I conduct business.