Aurora council races focus on development incentives
The incumbents running for Aurora City Council are facing challengers who say the city is focusing on business development at the expense of residents.
And several of the challengers intimate that it is due to contributions by developers and businesses to the campaign funds of Mayor Richard Irvin.
"I believe in good, clean, honest government. I don't believe we are getting that in Aurora," says John Laesch, candidate for the at-large alderman seat, saying there is a "pay to play" system where companies that donate receive financial incentives for developments.
His opponent, two-term incumbent Sherman Jenkins, denies that. He also defends the city's use of tax-increment financing districts, where property taxes above a certain point are diverted into development, to provide financial incentives, such as that arranged for moving the Hollywood Casino from downtown to Farnsworth Avenue, near the Chicago Premium Outlets Mall.
"I'm tired of people telling us we should not invest (city funds) in Aurora," Jenkins says.
"I think this (the election) is more of a referendum on the Richard Irvin administration than Sherman Jenkin's performance," Laesch said.
Jenkins worked for the city for 23 years, ending as economic development director. He was elected alderman in 2017.
Laesch, a former member of the East Aurora school board; David Cannon, running for the 5th Ward seat; and Gautam Bhatia, running for the 8th Ward, are supporting each other. All three criticized the council for approving incentives for the casino move.
Mansa Latham Williams, a human resources professional, also is seeking the at-large seat. He said the most serious issue facing Aurora is deciding what will replace the casino in downtown.
"We must replace the downtown Aurora casino with a solution that is revenue-generating and community-building," he said, adding Aurora does not currently have sufficient spaces to host large gatherings, such as conferences.
Alderman Patty Smith is seeking her second term representing the 8th Ward; Alderman Carl Franco is running for 5th Ward; Olynda M. De Hoyos is seeking to unseat Alderman Ted Mesiacos, who has been in office since 2013; and Benjamin Marcum is running against Mike Saville, who has represented the 6th Ward for 38 years.
"Most of the large development projects that have been improved in the last few years have involved some form of financial incentives for the developers. While I understand that development deals, like any business deal, require 'give and take,' I would like to see Aurora become such a destination city that financial incentives become a thing of the past," De Hoyos said.
Mesiacos said the economic incentives "seem to be paying short-term dividends, especially in the downtown." He said the city should keep "a more focused eye" on budget expenses to decrease disposable and discretionary funds before raising its property tax levy.
Franco defended voting for the casino deal and for incentives the city has given businesses to come to Aurora.
"Everybody in the Western suburbs is in competition for business," he said. Franco said, however, that he thinks within five years, Aurora could be such an attractive place to be it wouldn't need to offer incentives.
Franco's opponent, Cannon, said the casino deal was rushed, without input from the public.
"If you are going to make a big-ol' decision like that, have a public forum," Cannon said.
Bhatia contends that aldermen are merely rubber-stamping decisions made by administrators and the mayor. He and Smith disagreed on whether taxpayers will be paying for the incentives offered to the casino and other businesses. He also said Smith held a fundraiser at a company that has contracts with the city.
Smith said that anytime that company has been chosen for a contract while she has been alderman, there were also other bidders for the contract, and the city staff recommended the company as the best option.
"To sit here and be accused of pay-to-play politics is the highest level of insult I could hear," Smith said.