CLINTON — An emphasis on bringing in new jobs and housing options repeatedly surfaced Wednesday night during a Clinton City Council and Clinton School Board candidate forum at Clinton City Hall.
Six council candidates – two each for Ward 2, Ward 4, and at-large seats – two mayoral candidates and three school board candidates took turns introducing themselves and answering questions as voters gear up for the Nov. 5 election. The mayoral candidate forum followed, with Mayor Mark Vulich squaring off against challenger Scott Maddasion.
Clinton School Board candidates Jenny Green, Mike Pelham and Mike House were the first candidates featured; their portion of the forum was limited to introductions and a brief explanation of issues since the three incumbents are running for three seats. The fourth candidate in the race, Brianna Varner, announced earlier this week that she was dropping out of the race.
The six council candidates were next to take their seats in front of the audience. The candidates are Ward 2: incumbent Lynn McGraw and newcomer Cyara Peterson; Ward 4: incumbent Paul Gassman and opponent Rhonda Kearns; and At-Large: incumbent Cody Seeley and challenger Gregg Obren. Each race will fill one seat. All candidates was asked to respond to the same questions, with moderator David Pillers directing the session.
The questions addressed city budgeting, vacant building removal, Clinton’s declining population, getting people who work in Clinton to live here, consolidating services and managing railpark development debt.
All were in agreement that more jobs are needed in the community, and many cited the need for housing to attract workers from Clinton and the surrounding areas to live in the city.
One of the major issues focused on vacant homes and buildings within the city. The council has allocated money to tear down those homes, Pillers said, asking each candidate what they would do to carry out that mission.
Obren called it a “tough, tough issue.”
“A lot of the things that are happening in our community now are ramifications of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, because of the (loss of the) Machinery and Equpiment tax,” he said. “Where people were moving out and they’re taking that ownership with them, and they really don’t care about what’s going on next door.”
Getting people to care about what they own is a place to start, he said.
“First we have to instill some community pride in things that are going on,” he said. “The second thing is, when those ordinances and resolutions are on the dockets here, we need to be following them. If they need to be changed, we need to be seeking that change. ... A lot of things that are happening in our local neighborhoods are just like, ‘Hey, is there a way to mow the grass and keep it looking good.’”
Gassman also described it as a big problem.
“We have 250 homes that are abandoned in Clinton in the community,” he said. “There are people who break into them and sell everything inside of them. ... It’s one of those unfortunate things that people who can’t afford to live in a home, abandon them.”
He acknowledged the construction of The Landing, stating the apartment complex is a good addition to Clinton.
Kearns agreed The Landing is good but said the city needs to get properties back on the tax rolls.
“I think the Landing is working well for people that can afford it,” she said. “But there are lot of properties that go on tax sale ... that we have a lot of residents that want to just buy that tax sale property and get it set up for low-income rental property. And then that’s right next to me and now that’s what I’m living next to.
“And it’s fine if they care about where they’re living, but it’s not fine if they don’t. And I’ve had both living next door to me.”
She would like a tax sale to be more public so the average citizen knows when it’s going to happen, and that the council would increase the number of abandoned homes the city tears down each year.
“From 14 to 16 a year, I’d like to see that jump to like 20, maybe,” she said, adding that she would like to see a limit on the number of rental properties allowed in each neighborhood.
“I would love to have the properties that are on my block all owned by a family that wanted to live there and not rented to anybody that’s going to pay the bill,” she said. “I want families living by me. I don’t just want rental property next door.
“Maybe it’ll make our neighborhoods cleaner, just because of pride of ownership.”
McGraw said she understands why people want abandoned properties to be cleared quickly, but cautioned as to why it’s not that easy.
“In the first place, you can’t buy them if someone is still paying property taxes on them,” she said, noting that many properties are owned by corporations “that aren’t even in this town.”
She said the property can’t be purchased by the city until the owners have stopped paying property taxes for three years, there are legal fees to cover and in some cases, asbestos has to be removed.
“It’s a very costly thing,” she said. “And if we’re going to try to keep the budget in line, there’s only so much we can do.
“In 2016, we bought 10 and tore them done, the following year we bought 14 and tore them town, and then the next year we did buy 16 and tore them down,” she said. “But there’s only so much money. If you’re going to talk about budget, you have to talk about these nuisance homes. What we need in this town is more jobs, so that more people will come to Clinton and we can have more decent housing, and not have all these houses that are problems.”
Peterson also gave a nod to the construction of The Landing and another new development planned to offer 260-plus apartments nearby, but said the focus must be on deteriorating properties.
“Those are great. That’s great, right?” she said of the new construction. “OK, I live in the blighted area that they were just discussing. I live there. It is my backyard. Every single day it is what I see. We need to focus on that. We need to focus on these abandoned houses. We need to focus on the structures that are falling apart. There are literally porches that are falling off houses that people live in. That is a safety concern.”
She said that concern extends not only to the people who live there but to the fire department and others.
“Every different angle deals with it,” she said. “Whether it’s next door to you or two blocks away.”
She pointed to Community Development Block Grants, rehab project moneys and other programs as ways to help. She also wants to make sure action happens when it is supposed to when it comes to the vacant homes the city has marked for removal.
“Some of those homes are rolled over, bought but are not down,” she said. “I want to make sure they follow up on what they are paid to do.”
Seeley blames the problem on Clinton’s shrinking population.
He said a town of 30,000-plus that now is down to 25,000-ish is going to lead to vacant houses. He said the definition of pride of ownership also has changed, with people staying in their homes and not getting to know their neighbors.
“We’ve been very aggressive in telling the staff to deal with these properties as quickly as possible within the realms of what we can afford to do,” he said of the council’s work.
He agreed with McGraw that tearing down houses is very expensive and time consuming. It takes more than three months to acquire property, and when out-of town investors buy a property and flip it every month, the process has to start over.
“It’s just a nightmare,” Seeley said.
“We’ve been trying everything possible to try to get rid of some of these houses in these neighborhoods because there are people down here that are living next to this and it is terrible. It is a bad situation for them and it’s bad for the whole neighborhood and it’s driving down those property values. ... That’s not fair to them.”
The topic of decreasing population came up several times throughout the night, with candidates offering solutions to bring residents to Clinton.
“The only way you can really deal with that is to have all the necessities of quality of life,” Gassman said. “Good jobs, good homes, recreation, places for people to shop and in all of those categories, we’re not the only ones that have been hit.”
He pointed to the council’s investment in the development of the railpark.
“We’re finally getting some companies to move into Clinton,” he said.
O Energy is taking some property and he said more are expected to move in. “They’re starting to come in, because we have what they need,” he said.
He said the same can be said for the city of Clinton’s sewer plant, which also is connected to Low Moor and Camanche, and said those investments years ago have helped the city today and will continue to do so in the future.
“If I’m reelected, we’re going to keep working on that railpark. It’s one of the biggest assets right now to develop jobs for our community,” he said.
Kearns said she sees an economic divide within the city and that the council must help deal with it.
“Clinton has the upper crust and has the lower crust, but everybody in the middle, that is who we’re fighting to keep,” she said.
She said there are many graduates who can’t afford college but they are having trouble finding a job that pays more than minimum wage. She said higher paying jobs are here, listing LyondellBasell, Clysar and Nestle as three companies where those are available, but that potential workers don’t have time to wait for a position to open up.
“They just can’t wait long enough,” she said. “You have to wait for that one person to retire or that person that got sick, they can’t come back, and then you’ll finally get that.
She said the lack of good-paying jobs leads to other problems as well. An example she gave would be of a worker who can only find a job at a gas station overnight. She said interactions could put that worker on the path of meeting the wrong people.
“So now he becomes a drug addict,” she said. “And we kind of set up our young people who can’t afford to go to college, we set up to fail. It’s like we let them down.”
McGraw said housing also plays a role in population growth.
“I agree that we need more jobs in this town,” she said. “The council has been working hard on the railpark and getting new companies to come to town.”
She said directing students into learning a trade and becoming a welder, electrician or plumber, is important.
“Therefore, they can possibly get a job in one of those fields,” she said.
She also pointed to The Landing’s development.
“We need those because then people who want to work at the prison will be able to come to Clinton and live,” she said. “I just feel that housing and the jobs go hand in hand.”
Peterson alluded to the Peanut Butter program that helps workers pay off student loan debt, local scholarships and other incentives that help recruit workers and make education more affordable.
She said population growth will come down to developing pride among community residents and using the local manufacturing base to help the community succeed.
“Twenty-two percent of our community is manufacturing jobs,” she said. “We need to focus on that.”
Seeley said Clinton residents also need to figure out what they want Clinton to be – a city of 40,000 to 50,000 or one with a population of 25,000.
He said declining population is a universal problem, with fewer children born and an older demographic. He also said the city has to look at why people who work here live out of town as well.
“We have thousands of people right now who commute to Clinton to work, but then they leave because they live somewhere else,” he said. “Why? That’s the question we have to answer.”
He said the city needs to look at its quality-of-place attributes, including affordable and quality housing, technical training, quality of parks and recreational opportunities.
Obren said it also is important that Clinton shares a vision with other neighboring communities.
“We’re not just the city of Clinton. We are a micropolitan area that is inclusive of going up to Thomson, down to LeClaire, going over to DeWitt, going over to Morrison,” he said.
He said that region includes several school districts, two states and many counties and planning lends itself to taking a bigger point of view when talking to school districts, county government and city governments all around the area.
“It’s quality of life. Why is someone going to move here or move close to here,” he said. “Why do they want to work here? We need to look at that micropolitan vision.”
See Saturday’’s Clinton Herald to read about the mayoral portion of the candidate forum.