Mary M. Papantos: 2021 candidate for Wheeling village board
Six candidates for three seats
Civic involvement: Current Wheeling village trustee
Q: How do you view your role in confronting the pandemic: provide leadership even if unpopular, give a voice to constituents -- even ones with whom you disagree, or defer to state and federal authorities?
A: We set policy to provide residents and businesses the tools they needed to stay informed, comply with mandates and stay safe throughout the pandemic. In March 2020, the board started working with staff to reach out to businesses and residents and set policy to help alleviate some of the financial losses that businesses that were forced to shut down incurred. As shutdowns lengthened and the pandemic worsened this included abating business and liquor license fees and working with local restaurants to set up outdoor dining areas. Permits were not required. Wheeling actively advertised the names of establishments that offered outside services and updated the list as more businesses were added. The village website was immediately updated with links that residents could use to get the latest information. That information is regularly updated. While it would have been easy to disregard government orders and ignore the mandated shutdowns Wheeling officials knew that in the long term that would not help stem the pandemic nor would it bode well in working with neighboring municipalities and state agencies.
Q: Did your town continue to adequately serve its constituents during the disruptions caused by the pandemic? If so, please cite an example of how it successfully adjusted to providing services. If not, please cite a specific example of what could have been done better.
A: Municipalities are service organizations. When businesses/residents turn on the tap they expect and deserve clean water to come out. When something goes down the drain there is no thought abought where it goes next. When 911 is called we all deserve and expect an immediate response. During what seems like never ending snow falls, we expect to drive down streets and get to where we are going without being stuck in a snowdrift. As streets need repair we expect that this is taken care of. It truly is "what we pay taxes for." During the first shut down village hall was closed to walk-ins, in-person business was by appointment only, but no services were interrupted. People were able to apply for permits, pay bills and meet with staff as needed. Staff schedules were adjusted to maintain social distancing and keep Wheeling running. Village board meetings were conducted remotely and televised as usual. Wheeling successfully operated through each phase of the pandemic.
Q: In light of our experiences with COVID-19, what safeguards/guidelines should you put in place to address any future public health crises?
A: Trying to predict what the next future health crisis may be is close to impossible. It is important that we are prepared for all emergency situations. To that end, in December of 2020, Wheeling became a member of the Joint Emergency Management System (JEMS). In short JEMS is a group of 11 communities (including Wheeling) that have created and formalized a working relationship for the sole purpose of standardizing training and emergency response protocol. JEMS will play an important role in addressing future public health crises (and all other emergency response protocols). Wheeling has always prided itself on being prepared for whatever may come, but the value of having dedicated emergency managers and the input of multiple subject matter experts is an invaluable benefit to our community.
Q: What cuts can local government make to reduce the burden of the pandemic on taxpayers?
A: Wheeling's share of the property tax bill is just below 14%. Cuts to our budget could result in cuts to service. Instead of relying on "cuts" we should find alternative ways to increase revenue without increasing the tax levy. Recruiting new business is one way to increase revenue. As service organizations, a substantive portion of local government expenditures is personnel. This includes salaries, health insurance costs, employment taxes and pension contributions. For the most recent tax levy, all pension funds costs accounted for 43% of the tax levy. Ten years ago all pension funds costs accounted for only 15%. One reason for the increased pension costs is an unfunded mandate from the state that requires all pensions be 90% funded by 2040. Wheeling is operating with substantially fewer budgeted positions than in 2009, yet still maintains all essential services. Residents sometimes ask why Wheeling doesn't offer some nonessential services that other municipalities do. The answer is simple, we won't increase staff levels to offer nonessential services and pay for that increase by either raising the tax levy or incurring debt to complete essential capital projects.
Q: What do you see as the most important infrastructure project you must address? Why and how should it be paid for? Conversely, during these uncertain economic times, what infrastructure project can be put on the back burner?
A: Each year the village board reviews and approves the five-year Capital Improvement Plan (easily accessible for public review at wheelingil.gov) which includes infrastructure projects. The plan includes details of how money has been budgeted (from what funds) to pay for each project. In Wheeling no debt is issued for capital improvement nor is the General Fund used for capital improvement projects.
Classifying one project as the most important is difficult. Obviously projects that affect basic village operations and are related to the immediate health and safety of anyone in the village receive top priority. This would include the Water Main Replacement Program and the Lead Pipe Replacement Program. More than half of the lead line replacement program ($1,000,000.00) is being paid for with grant money. Neither of these projects can be put on the back burner.
In the event that uncertain revenues warrant a delay in infrastructure projects the village board should turn to the expert advice of our engineering and public works staff. They have the knowledge to assess the urgency of each project and provide work arounds if a delay is necessary.
Q: Do you plan to address businesses that don't adhere to the governor's order to close or restrict business?
A: Since the beginning of the pandemic Wheeling has focused on helping businesses not being punitive. We have forgiven business license fees, liquor license fees and health inspection fees. We assisted businesses in setting up outdoor dining areas and charged no permit fees for pandemic related changes. Turnaround time in approving outdoor dining and tents was very often less than 24 hours. Wheeling actively advertised the approved businesses that set up outdoor dining on our website and Facebook pages.
Q: Do you agree or disagree with the stance your board/council has taken on permitting recreational marijuana sales in the community? What would you change about that stance, if you could?
A: I am in total agreement with the decision to allow recreational marijuana sales in Wheeling. This is a highly regulated industry; there should be no concerns for dispensaries in any municipality. According to news reports (some in the Daily Herald) the pandemic did not affect sales; in fact total sales seem to have grown each month since legalization in January 2020. By allowing sales by licensed dispensaries and applying the tax allowed by the state of Illinois Wheeling will be able to help offset retail sales tax losses experienced during the pandemic. I look forward to the opening of the first dispensary in Wheeling sometime in March of 2021.
Q: What's one good idea you have to better the community that no one is talking about yet?
A: As of this writing the state is in Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout. According to most news sources by the end of summer enough vaccinations will have been administered nationally to achieve herd immunity. That would mean Wheeling could return to normal. The question is: What will the new normal be? I would like to see the village work with local businesses (perhaps through the Chamber of Commerce) to measure whether their businesses have returned to pre-pandemic levels. If not we should work with the businesses and have plans in place to help drive customers to our businesses.