Many local residents we speak to tell us it feels as if the November elections ended about a week ago. Some in our newsroom would agree, but while we were collectively trying to shake off the political fatigue, another election has snuck up on us.
The race, which at this point is looking like a sprint, to the April 2 consolidated general election officially kicked off Tuesday at the Sterling Coliseum. About 60 people attended the event sponsored by the Sauk Valley Area Chamber of Commerce.
The three candidates for mayor, incumbent Skip Lee, Alderman Jim Wise and Marc Batley, stepped up to outline their priorities and field questions. Batley made an unsuccessful run against Lee in 2011, while Wise, former city administrator in Morrison, will make his first mayoral bid.
Candidates for the other contested race in Sterling, 1st Ward alderman, also faced off. Retha Elston, a registered nurse at KSB Hospital in Dixon, has represented the ward since her appointment to the council in 2006. She is being challenged by 22-year-old Dasan Klingenberg, who says a younger voice is needed at City Hall.
Residents were allowed to submit questions for the forum. Several predominant issues gained traction early on, and the questions are a good indicator of what Sterling residents are mulling before casting their votes.
Residents are fixated on capital projects, especially roads and sidewalks. The city has responded to the public outcry for better infrastructure. A 10-year capital projects plan was developed, covering 2017 through 2026. The plan includes priorities for roads, stormwater sewer, riverfront redevelopment and buildings and equipments. The price tag is nearly $32.5 million – about $3.25 million a year over that decade.
To the city’s credit, about $6.2 million has gone to badly needed stormwater sewer projects in the last year, but that means some roads and sidewalks have to wait a bit longer.
Lee includes infrastructure as one of his three biggest priorities if re-elected, with the other two being economic development and public safety. The mayor also believes he has unfinished business in upgrading the downtown and the redevelopment of the riverfront.
Wise and Batley also hit heavily on infrastructure, as did the 1st Ward candidates. Klingenberg cited infrastructure as the city’s biggest problem, particularly deteriorating sidewalks. Elston retraced many of the recent capital projects accomplishments.
Wise said he would focus on better prioritizing the order in which streets are fixed and he would “shift the budget” to increase allocations for streets. About $1.2 million now goes to streets and Wise wants to bump that up to $1.5 million, but didn’t say exactly where the money would come from.
Economic development, police and fire pensions, riverfront development and property taxes also dominated the conversation. There were several references to the city’s strategic plan, bringing up challenges that have been talked about for decades.
Rural population loss is an enormous issue that spills into just about every area of a small town’s prospects for future quality of life. In addition to job opportunities, city leaders will be tasked with offering affordable housing, good schools, health care and public safety. Recreation opportunities and other amenities – which are closely linked with the riverfront – must also be at the top of the list going forward.
Progress has been made in many of these key areas and it’s time for Sterling residents to decide which candidates for mayor and in the 1st Ward are best equipped to continue meeting these difficult challenges while being fiscally responsible.