DANVILLE – After residents in November voted to keep the city’s form of government the same and continue to elect a full-time mayor, the four men vying for votes to be mayor for the next four years all have city government ties.
Candidates Rickey Williams Jr. and Steve Nichols are aldermen, with Williams serving as mayor in the interim after former Mayor Scott Eisenhauer left his position early; Donald Crews is a city employee; and James McMahon has been an alderman and his wife, Sharon, is an alderwoman on the Danville City Council.
The Commercial-News sent election survey questions to the four candidates in the April 2 election.
1. Why are you running for mayor? Why would you be a good fit for the city as mayor? What qualities would make you a good mayor?
Williams: I love this city and the people here that helped me become who I am and I want us all to thrive! I am the best person to accomplish this because my educational training and practical management experience has given me a proven record of taking entities on the verge of collapse and turning them into prosperous pillars of the community. I am an excellent communicator who is honest, hard-working, respectful and a good steward. I have shown that I manage money well and am a strong team leader; that is what we need to secure our future!
Crews: I am running for mayor because our city has been steadily declining for far too long. I believe I would make a good fit for mayor because I'm not a politician and unlike the other candidates, I have not been a part of the problem. I think that my relationship with the departments, community and ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a great asset that has helped me throughout my career. My dedication to my hometown is unwavering and the passion I have to return Danville to its glory days is a challenge I believe we can win together. Out of all of the candidates I have the only inside view of operations, this allows me to see what works and what does not. I believe my passion, enthusiasm and willingness to work together is an asset we need in the mayor's office during these tough times.
Nichols: As a native, I have found Danville a great place to live and raise a family, and I want to be sure it continues to be a great place for future generations. I believe that I am the most qualified candidate to lead the city at this crucial time. I have a solid background in both the private and public sector, the strength to make tough decisions and the ability to identify and select the best key employees to lead the city into the future.
McMahon: Danville is my home. I want my home to grow and be a place where my kids and every family can live and enjoy for years to come. I have worked with the city and county for many years. As county board chairman I managed a large budget and many organizational problems for years and was successful in doing so without unnecessarily burdening the taxpayer. With my history, I can partner with other mayors and the county to develop a unified growth program. Local business owners will be part of who I rely on to counsel the city. I also am a local business person so I see their issues. Experience, the ability to connect to people in every neighborhood, the desire to serve and make government user friendly, is why I am running for mayor.
2. What does your experience (in running a business/working for an organization, current and past employment and any government experience) show residents in how you can manage a $50 million city budget and oversee more than 200 employees?
Crews: Throughout my life I have gained the knowledge and experience which comes with working in state and local government. I have government experience with operational procedure and new process creation. I have also served on an agency board that rewrote procedure as well as served as a representative to departmental staff in a government agency. Being employed by the city I have a daily view of areas that need to be corrected and issues that need addressed. I Interact daily with different departments and have an inside view of the changes that need to be made. I feel that the city needs a structured mayor that will better align our departments to meet the needs of the community.
Nichols: I have been a business owner and have operated corporate units. In my role as a district manager, I supervised 10 units, with $20 million in sales, over 400 employees and 30 managers with responsibility for personnel, budgeting, cost controls and customer service. To be a successful leader, it is important to be visible in the field. I would spend time working alongside employees in every department. One good approach to improving service and identifying efficiencies is to spend time with the people who know the problem areas and have ideas on how to fix them.
McMahon: As county board chairman I have done it before. I have managed a workforce of some 400 people. I have worked on multi-million dollar budgets in the county for several years and we have never unduly burdened the taxpayer. I do not like to see new fees and increases surprise people. Many people live on fixed incomes. They need some predictability in costs. That is the art of good government; planning to avoid the need for new fees.
Williams: If you are faithful over a few things, you will become master over many. In 13 years, organizations under my leadership operated in the black all but one year. At the Boys & Girls Club, we nearly doubled our revenue while serving three times as many children and paying off our $300,000-plus mortgage (during the Great Recession). At Project Success, we’ve grown from a budget of only about $700,000 with four sites and less than 30 employees to a nearly $2 million budget with 15 sites and more than 120 employees by securing more than $11 million in new grants.
3. What should be focuses in the city's budget? Why? Do you support additional revenues? Why or why not? What should be looked at for budget cuts and/or what budget changes should be made? Are city salaries appropriate for the positions? Why or why not?
Nichols: Recently, there has been too much focus on what is best for city employees. The focus needs to return to serving the public, which is the entire reason government exists. People are worried about crime, potholes in the streets and high taxes. We are carrying $4 million in enterprise funds, twice as much as we need to provide for contingencies. This is money our citizens have already paid in taxes, and, in the short run, it can help fund additional police and street repairs while we identify more ways to streamline the operation. Yet, acting Mayor Williams is asking for tax and fee increases including a new business tax, much like the one just suspended in Bloomington. For many years, government workers were paid less than they could have made working elsewhere, so to attract good employees, governments offered more benefits. As salaries have gone up, benefits have not gone down in government but have in the business world. Taxpayers should not be asked to sacrifice in order to pay for higher benefits for city employees than they receive in their own jobs.
McMahon: The city budget should focus on public safety and infrastructure. That is why people live in the city. We need additional revenue but that doesn’t mean more taxes. We need to build business and tourism. We need to grow and from that growth we can see new revenue. So as far as budget cuts, as people retire we need to look at consolidation. Technology and cross-training will help. It takes time but we need to re-think how we do business. We need to prioritize and see where we can limit spending on nonessential items or programs. Salaries always need to be compared to like positions in comparable cities. If they are out of line, we will adjust accordingly.
Williams: Stewardship holds the key to successfully managing our budget. I have not traditionally supported new revenues because we were not doing the best we could with what the public had already given us. In that spirit, I have eliminated four positions and reduced the salary of another. However, we are close to cutting as much as we can without hindering services and have a pension shortfall of over $100 million. Therefore, I reluctantly support additional revenues such as the increased hotel-motel tax as it doesn’t directly burden residents. I will not ask for more money unless absolutely necessary.
Crews: The problems we have in the budget are the continuous shortfalls and revenue losses in departments that should be generating the needed revenue to be at or close to being self-sustained. Additional revenue is key to helping our city overcome the drought we are currently in. Currently we have city departments underperforming year after year, as well as some city management making exuberant salaries. We have to cut the areas that are costing us the most but returning nothing to the citizens. I believe a majority of the employee salaries are at an appropriate level, but we have to make sure routinely that we are not overpaying for the return we are receiving. I support additional revenue that does not involve increasing taxes or fees. We have to start thinking outside the box in terms of revenue generation, we are miles behind other cities in forward thinking development in our city.
4. What specific actions would you support to improve housing? Help downtown? Cut the city's pension obligation?
McMahon: We need to improve appearances, assist in structural repairs, and make neighborhoods look good again. Neighborhood by neighborhood we need to work on structure and appearance. Whatever grant or federal and state funds we have should be devoted to repair and rehabilitation. We need to attract people back to neighborhoods that are safe and have decent housing. This is true for the east side of Danville and also for the central area as well. For downtown, first we must maintain the work already done. It is beautiful. But we must have a plan to draw people here so we can grow and improve. I want to make Danville and Vermilion County a destination point. I want to partner with the Conservation District to draw people here for recreation, fishing, hiking, camping and such. I want to grow a Downtown Danville that will offer unique shops and food establishments for visitors to enjoy. It takes a long-term marketing plan and that is what we must do. We must develop a unified marketing plan as a city and county to draw people here. Little by little businesses will grow in response and our downtown will thrive. It may take years, but we have to plant the seeds now. For the pension, we need to understand that there are two pension systems. The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund handles most non-public safety employees. That fund is fully funded and safe. The Police and Fire Pension needs work. But it is simple math. We need to adopt a plan and follow it. We did have a plan, but it was not properly funded. With time and discipline it can be funded. There is no way around it but it can be done with planning. The people who served did their part. We need to do ours.
Williams: We improve housing by working with homeowners and landlords to improve their properties and holding those that fail to accountable. I would support temporary tax freezes for individuals who substantially improve their property. We can help downtown by increasing events such as First Friday to get the public back down there as well as providing incentives for those who redevelop downtown properties. We can cut the city’s budget obligation by making aggressive payments upfront which will help quickly reduce the amount owed and thus interest paid.
Crews: According to our previous studies we have a surplus of housing in the city. Our goal should be to oversee that current housing is to a higher standard to allow families to live safer. Downtown is a beautiful place that unfortunately has been plagued with business closures and building deterioration. With a new leader our city can once again invest in successful ventures of small businesses supporting families within our own community. Unfortunately the pension problem is an obligation that leaves little room for error. We have a set amount of time to bring the fund within the perimeters of state law. Kicking the can down the road as previously done and currently proposed, should have never been an option. I think it's time we started looking into switching new hires into an alternative investment plan.
Nichols: I believe that the plan proposed to locate mixed-use housing in the greater downtown area has merit. The $15 million in new construction would provide housing options for working families of all income levels. Concerns about location and concentration of units seem to have been addressed in the final application. Like the Holland and Wolford apartments, this project has potential to add value to our community if well managed. The recent renovations at the Fischer Theatre will move that project closer to completion, which will be a great boost to tourism and the downtown area. We have always met our pension obligations and always will. As mayor, I will always budget the State of Illinois pension board requirements for annual pension contributions.
5. Do you support city employees living in the city? Why or why not?
Williams: In an ideal world, every person who works for the city should live in the city. That being said, in the 21st Century, I am not sure that this is a realistic expectation. Several unions have fought and won the right to live outside of city limits. If we change residency requirements, I would like to require every employee living outside the city to pay the same amount of property taxes they would as if they lived here in the form of an annual fee. I do not support employees living further than five miles outside of city limits.
Crews: I do support city employees living in the city. I feel that having a vested interest in real property inside the city allows employees to know the area and be passionate about the work that they do. With that said we have a lot of employees working for the city currently that live in other areas that do an amazing job. Existing employees would be grandfathered in and would not have to worry about losing their jobs regardless of past administration policies.
Nichols: City employees should live in the city that pays their salaries. Anything else sends a bad message to the public. Contractually, and in some cases by state statute, some city employees are allowed to live outside the city limits. We should, however, require that any employee living outside the city pay the public safety pension fee and the amount of city property tax that would have been collected on their home if it were in the city.
McMahon: A residency requirement is not helpful. Many communities abandoned that idea. People who work here will always shop here and that is our largest revenue gain. People will live close to their workplace if it is possible. And with neighborhood improvements that will increasingly happen. But with a mobile society and often two working members of a family, it can be difficult to mandate residency. The better practice is to make living here attractive for everyone as their choice.
6. How can the city better combat violence and drug and gang activity?
Crews: The safety of our residents is my top priority. When our children can't walk down the street without being shot at we have a major problem. However, our city has never acknowledged that we have a gang problem. With the right leadership in the mayors office and public safety position, I believe we can fight our violent crime and gang problem with more advanced techniques. Unfortunately many of our officers and citizens have great ideas that are not being heard. The drug epidemic is going to require a collaborative effort between hospitals, neighboring municipalities, community outreach and every neighborhood in our city. Together we can make our city a safe place for our families once again.
Nichols: The number one issue that citizens have raised to me in this campaign is crime and violence. The city needs additional police on the streets and a strong police chief who understands the challenges we are facing. Creating police substations is one way we can encourage more trust and build relationships with the people who just want to raise their families in a safe neighborhood. We must work with the State’s Attorney to provide a strong case that will lead to convictions. The reality is that it’s easy to say, “see something, say something,” but citizens are rightfully concerned that they are putting themselves and their families at risk when they report suspicious activity. Our young people must have hope for a brighter future. We must work with the many organizations in our community to prepare them to be productive employees. Danville employers are hiring and willing to train for well-paying jobs.
McMahon: We have to get into each neighborhood and assess the problems in that neighborhood. We need a strategy for each. People and circumstances will dictate that strategy. But the key is to let the bad people know we are there and we will consistently be there. For drugs and violence, both, there is a two-fisted approach: We will offer help and encouragement if you want to get out of this world of drugs and violence. If you are hard core and do not want to change, we will hound you until we see you in jail. We will work with all community members to find ways to divert kids and adults from bad choices. Again, neighborhood by neighborhood we will see what works but public safety in each neighborhood is a must. That is non-negotiable.
Williams: Take three steps. First, change the way we patrol the city from a rotational basis to assigning officers a specific area. This will allow the residents to get to know and trust them (which will help build rapport), and allow the officers to get a better handle on the neighborhood (allowing more crimes to be solved). Second, we need to reinstitute our POP (Problem Oriented Policing) Unit to focus on particular crimes (violence, drug and gang activity) in particular areas. Third, we need to have separate police and fire chiefs so that leadership can focus on combating these issues.
7. Other issues/additional comments.
Nichols: City staff and elected officials need to know and appreciate the challenges of people in all parts of our community, and citizens need to understand how to work with their government. To this end, I will conduct city council planning meetings in various parts of the city. Citizen participation is the key to our future success. As mayor, I pledge to be open and accessible to everyone. I have no further political ambitions and will work tirelessly to keep the promises that I have made. Danville is a great place to live and has been good to me and my family. I want to continue to serve this city and make the government work for you.
McMahon: We need to be very assertive about alerting our seniors to scams. This will involve alerts, community outreach and partnerships with agencies like CRIS senior services. We plan to be active in particularly protecting our senior citizens. I will always have an open door policy and welcome any and all input from our citizens.
Williams: Infrastructure, neighborhood, and business development should be the other primary focus. We must conduct asset-mapping to assess our infrastructure and be proactive in addressing problems (will save taxpayers millions). We must support existing Neighborhood Associations and Watches and establish new ones; reconnecting neighbors will help citizens do their part while we do ours. Strategic removal of blight one neighborhood at a time versus piecemeal is also crucial to redevelopment. Finally, we must take business-friendly steps such as ensuring a clear process for development/redevelopment, providing incentives for use of local labor/materials, and work to bolster, not hinder, ingenuity.
Crews: If we continue electing the same career politicians that have been a part of the problem for our city, we will continue down the path to financial ruin. We need new faces in these elected positions to wipe the slate clean. Together we can start to rebuild our city and break free from the economic downturn we are currently in. Citizens of Danville I urge you to come together and show our elected officials enough is enough. Let’s return Danville to a safe, business- and family-friendly city once again.
Rickey Williams Jr.
Address: 607 W. Madison St.
Family: Mother, Laura, is the Director of Adult Education and father, Rickey, is a Criminal Justice Professor at DACC; sister Amy runs an international youth soccer company and brother-in-law is a Master Sergeant in the Marines.
Employment: CEO and CFO of Project Success of Vermilion County for nearly 6 years and has served as mayor since Nov. 6, 2018.
Education: Danville High School; Millikin University, B.A. Political Science; Emory University, N/A, Public Policy and Neighborhood Development.
Political experience/organizations involved with: Alderman since May 2009 and served as the Vice Mayor from 2013-2017. Serve on the Executive Committee of Vermilion Advantage, the Community Development Committee, and the Labor Relations Council.
Address: 16 E. Roselawn St.
Family: fiancée Courtney Warren; sons, Donald Crews III, Cooper Crews and Hudson Crews.
Employment: Danville code enforcement inspector.
Education: Graduated from Westville High School; Associate Degree in Criminal Justice, DACC; Bachelor of Science, Western Illinois University.
Political experience/organizations involved with: Previously ran for county board; Young Conservatives of America.
Steven W. Nichols
Address: 12 W. Raymond Ave.
Family: Wife, Carol; daughter, Cindy Peck; granddaughters, Caroline and Joanna Peck.
Employment: General Manager/District Manager Steak ‘n Shake Restaurants.
Education: Danville High School; Danville Area Community College and St. Mary of the Woods College with an associate’s degree in general studies and a bachelor’s degree in history.
Political Experience/organizations involved with: Alderman since 1993; chairman of the Danville Public Services Committee; vice president, Vermilion Heritage Foundation/The Fischer Theatre.
Address: 3139 E. Main St.
Family: Wife, Sharon; two children, Christopher and Lisa; and six grandchildren.
Employment: Owner/operator Illini Skateland for 41 years. Executive Director of the Roller Skating Association International.
Education: Aurora East High School; Waubonsee Community College (no degree).
Political experience/organizations involved with: Served two terms on the Danville City Council from 1987 through 1992; two terms on the Danville Township board; 10 years on the Vermilion County Board with six of them elected as county board chairman (2004 – 2014). Eucharistic Minister at Holy Family Catholic Church and a member of the Knights of Columbus.