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Thursday, July 3, 2014 12:01 am

Houston looks back and forward

Still mum on political future

 Springfield Mayor Mike Houston sounded both like a candidate and a politician ready to ride into the sunset during a speech last Friday at Citizens Club.

He boasted of accomplishments that include reducing city employment by 97 workers, slashing 76 employees at City Water, Light and Power and another 21 from the public works department, since taking office in 2011. The savings total $10 million a year, he said.

The city’s general fund, which averaged a negative daily balance of $3.5 million under his predecessor Tim Davlin, had an average daily balance of $7.8 million at the end of the last fiscal year and is projected to exceed $20 million, the highest ever in the city’s history, Houston said. The city’s bond rating has been upgraded, and streets, sidewalks and sewers are getting fixed, thanks to a sales tax hike and increase in sewer fees that he shepherded through the city council.

“We are in a better position today because of strong fiscal management and discipline,” Houston told the crowd. “There is no way the city could put its fiscal house in order without reducing its workforce.”

The city’s operations, Houston asserted, involve the least amount of politics he’s seen in his lifetime. Houston bragged that he has increased the number of workers assigned to code enforcement and cracked down on owners of abandoned and dilapidated buildings. Between May of 2011 and May of 2013, the city has demolished 180 problem buildings, Houston said. During the previous three-year period, just 41 buildings were torn down. And unemployment in the Springfield metropolitan area stands at 6 percent, tied with the Bloomington-Normal metropolitan area for the state’s lowest jobless rate.

“We are in a position to be a thriving center of commerce,” said Houston, who spent 20 minutes delivering prepared remarks and another 27 minutes fielding questions from the audience.

The mayor praised Springfield School District 186 and floated the idea of a tax increase to benefit the district. He suggested convening an independent group to evaluate the district and its management and make public a final report from the group.

“Then it will be time to go to the taxpayers of the city of Springfield who live within (District) 186 – making the assumption the report’s good – and ask for more dollars,” Houston said. “We can talk all we want to about lots of different things. Finances are a problem in government. They’re a problem in District 186. There’s no question that they need more dollars. When we talk about the future, 186 is really important to the future prosperity of our community. It is a good school district.”

In response to an audience question about his decision to contract with R.W. Troxell to insure the city’s power plants without soliciting bids, Houston, without naming names, acknowledged that he chose the firm because he knows someone who works for the company. At least two company officials have given campaign contributions to the mayor.

“I picked someone who has been in the insurance business for 35 years,” Houston said. “I don’t know of any time that the city of Springfield has bid insurance. … R.W. Troxell has been providing the insurance for CWLP since long before I was in office.”

That was the closest Houston came to addressing controversies during his administration. His remarks were otherwise a near-even mix of reflecting on the past and looking toward the future.

“He could have ended it by announcing he was running or announcing he was retiring,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Sangamon County auditor Paul Palazzolo, the sole announced candidate for mayor, was the only politician in attendance who has openly professed an interest in running for the city’s top job next year. He praised Houston’s record as a manager but said that there is more to the mayor’s job than exercising sound fiscal management. Houston, he said, has fallen short in some areas, particularly in his handling of illicit shredding of internal affairs files in the police department last year that ultimately resulted in departures of police chief Robert Williams and corporation counsel Mark Cullen.

“We’re in a good position to move forward,” Palazzolo said. “As an announced candidate, I believe I would have the talents and skills to lead Springfield and not just manage Springfield. … There are some things that have not been run as well as the fiscal situation.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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