There are a lot of misperceptions about Des Plaines, says Mayor Matt Bogusz, but he told local business leaders Thursday to leave them at the door, while asking for their support in helping the city achieve its goals.
During an "Address to Business" at a Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Bogusz said many think Des Plaines is a city too often focused on its rearview mirror, and is a town whose politicians cause more conflict than cooperation. But the first-term mayor -- the suburbs' youngest at age 27 -- said in his first state of the city address that the city he knows is quite different.
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"Des Plaines is moving forward," he said. "Businesses in this community are not passengers. They are an important constituency group that oftentimes is overlooked. You are all partners in our progress."
He pointed to improvements the city has made, saying that the city is no longer troubled financially, is becoming an "aggressive" economic developer, is working to fix crumbling infrastructure, and no longer has "institutional unrest" within city hall.
"This is our new normal. Next year, this will be our past," he said.
On city finances, Bogusz said the city's property tax levy has remained flat at $21 million the past four years, while it was able to pay down almost $6 million in debt last year and grow its reserve fund to $18 million, relative to when there were no reserves in 2009.
The city council voted to ease business licensing rules, cutting the time it takes to get a license from eight weeks to two weeks, while also lowering fees to get a license.
He said the city is pursuing economic development throughout town, from downtown to Cumberland Circle, and in the Oakton Street and Elmhurst Road corridors.
The city is ramping up its efforts to repair sewers, streets and sidewalks with $21.8 million in public works projects planned this year, compared to past years when between $3 million and $5 million was spent on infrastructure. Bogusz said the city isn't paying for the work by creating new debt, but with cash in hand that's been saved and earmarked for this purpose.
"The old model was you pay for today's sidewalks tomorrow," he said. "We need to stop chasing our tail, and we're doing it. We're catching up."
Bogusz lauded the council's vote to remove a "failed" residency policy that required all department heads to live in town, which he said made it difficult to attract top talent for vacant positions. He now says the city's leadership represents a "professional organization, from the top down."
Among issues to be addressed in the coming year, Bogusz said the city is "engaged" in conversations about a retailer about possibly filling the vacant Dominick's at Lee and Oakton streets. While he didn't speculate further, he confirmed that the shopping center is owned by Joe Caputo & Sons, which operates a store down the block on Oakton Street.
Bogusz said the city is interested in the possibility of state agencies building an exit at Lee Street for eastbound traffic on I-90, but it will come down to how much the project will cost, and who will pay for it. The project could involve Des Plaines, Rosemont and Chicago.
Here's a look at some of the things on Bogusz's to-do list in 2014:
• Lobby for a change in federal rules that would allow municipalities like Des Plaines to have a greater chance at receiving funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency when a major disaster occurs, such as the floods last spring.
• Lobby for a change in provisions of the current Rivers Casino agreement that would allow Des Plaines to keep more gambling revenue proceeds. Currently, the state receives the first $10 million generated annually, and the remaining amount is split, with Des Plaines getting 60 percent and about 10 so-called "benefiting communities," including several south suburbs, getting 40 percent.
• Identify a new water source for Des Plaines, which currently pays what Bogusz called an "exorbitant" rate to the city of Chicago.
• Start a "Mayor's Curb Appeal Challenge" in May that will encourage homeowners to do home improvement projects. A grand prize of $1,000 will be offered, though he says the initiative won't be funded through tax dollars.