Voters in our area’s two most populous counties on Nov. 8 will have very distinct choices to make, and both races feature veteran incumbents from the majority party facing outsiders with distinctly different ideas of how St. Clair and Madison counties should be run.
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern is a Democrat leading a group with 22 members of his party and seven Republicans. Even with that overwhelming majority, he is either too wise or too arrogant to trust them with the controversial drain of taxpayers by MidAmerica St. Louis Airport.
He is simply wrong to keep financial decisions away from the elected representatives on the County Board and entrusted to his hand-picked appointees on the Public Building Commission. The airport has required $81 million in subsidies and has $88 million in debt, but only Kern truly has sway over its future direction. To justify airport losses he continues to push the false equation that support for MidAmerica is the same as support for Scott Air Force Base.
Opponent Rodger Cook is a Republican whose governing experience is one term as Belleville mayor (which ended when Kern beat him), and who if elected chairman would lead a group with few allies (unless there is a revolution on Nov. 8). He is saying the right things about the airport, and he says troubling things about how Kern’s fight with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over using local union labor for levee fixes may have left the feds miffed enough to cost St. Clair County the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. We doubt the levee fight was the deciding factor in keeping those 3,000 spy mapping jobs in St. Louis — it was most likely a POTUS make-good for Ferguson — but a reputation for cantankerous parochialism surely didn’t help.
Cook pushes crime control as a basis for economic development, which you’d expect from a former cop. His vision beyond that is a little less defined, while Kern is finally opening the potential of the East St. Louis riverfront by using public and private dollars to fix the roads and opening up land for development, as well as continuing that fine tradition of ensuring no friend or relative of a Democrat is without a county job.
Tough choice between the experienced devil you know versus the lightly-tested reformer pulled up from 1997 by a dysfunctional county GOP.
Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan is a Democrat who has held the position since 2002. He often is the face of the status quo, but has championed taxpayer-friendly changes to elected leader pensions and kept the county budget balanced and the pensions well funded. It is hard to argue with the partnerships he has forged on levees, his backing of regional development outside his county and the 6,500 jobs from warehouse developments, including Amazon, in his own county.
He has decades of county government experience behind him, and scars from taking rival positions to former Chairman Rudy Papa and former Treasurer Fred Bathon. Bathon is the major dink against Dunstan, because it is hard to believe the open corruption that sent Bathon to federal prison for defrauding delinquent property taxpayers went unnoticed for years. Blind or looked the other way: Neither is flattering to Dunstan.
Madison County Treasurer Kurt Prenzler is a Republican challenging Dunstan for chairman. He was the first to question the practices that led to Bathon’s corruption conviction and has pushed populist causes, including fostering a taxpayer-friendly countywide referendum Nov. 8 that will drop the maximum property tax rate from 25 cents to 20 cents per $100 assessed valuation.
Prenzler seems to be a principled public servant, but with a number of issues that have blown up in his face. Some are because he is the lone Republican in a den of Democrats, some because he misjudged people or situations.
He is faced with a disability discrimination lawsuit from a former patronage employee that might once have been settled for $60,000 but is now a taxpayer liability north of $1 million. He failed to get a routine judge’s order authorizing the 2012 sale of delinquent taxes, a mistake his Democratic peers could have prevented and were quick to point out, which could have become a $500,000 taxpayer cost. He ended a county investment practice that was violating the county’s own rules and generating excessive commissions for a broker, but the unrealized gains from selling bonds early plus legal fees far outweighed the $340,000 settlement.
Another tough choice between an effective pragmatist with a serious blind side and a taxpayers’ Don Quixote.
From the top of the ticket on down, wouldn’t it be nice to have ballot choices that didn’t require you to first take a deep breath — or hold your nose?