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Thursday, April 14, 2011 03:21 pm

Despite ‘fragile’ budget, Mayor Edwards relished ‘carrying the load’ for a while

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PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Stable” but “fragile.”

That’s how Springfield Mayor Frank Edwards described Springfield’s finances in the annual State of the City address at the Springfield Hilton Mon., April 11.

“Basically, we’re using a fiscal year 2009 budget with the expense level of 2012,” says Edwards.

Edwards called the city’s economic meltdown, “the perfect storm,” that started with the recession in 2007, during a speech addressing the city’s fiscal budget to members of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce and others in the community.

Edwards says that he has built a surplus of more than $1 million, putting the city in the “black” for the first time in three years. He added that the city needs to boost revenue by building a cash reserve and needs to pay off current debt.

“I think Mayor Edwards did a good job in terms of outlining where the city is,” says Mike Houston, mayor-elect.

But Houston called the state of the city “simply unacceptable,” after Edwards’ address and will redo the budget that Edwards and the city council have already approved after he takes office, Fri., April 29, at the Sangamon auditorium at University of Illinois Springfield.

“There is no question that we have to right-size city government and it’s going to be a very difficult budget to put together but we need to create a fund balance and we need to deal with the city’s problem. If we’re putting all our money into personnel, you’re not going to be able to do that.”

“I’m fully aware of what I’m stepping into,” says Houston. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that.”

Houston says there will be a personal audit of city government, including City Water light & Power. “As a result of that audit, we will have some reduction in terms of city employment,” says Houston.

In an interview with Illinois Times a week before the address, Edwards says that he has enjoyed the view from the “top,” even if holding the city office was never on his “bucket list.” In the final weeks of his administration, Edwards reflects on the last four months as interim mayor and looks forward to his last term as alderman of Ward 1.

The 60-year-old small business owner grew up in Springfield and graduated from Glenwood High School in Chatham.

“You don’t want your hometown not to succeed, especially on your watch,” says Edwards. Some of the most difficult decisions he says he has faced on his “watch” was forming the city’s budget.

“Somebody’s got to be able to make those decisions and not agonize over them. If you’re going to move something forward, let’s go,” he says.

Some have disagreed with Edwards’ policies or quibbled over budget projections of a $10 million shortfall.

“I think it was a rude awakening for him,” says Gail Simpson, alderman of Ward 2. “When he was alderman, he was extremely critical of the mayor and I think once he sat in that seat, he found it’s so easy to criticize, but once you’ve sat in that seat, it’s a lot different.”

Edwards was first elected to his seat on what he refers to as the “horseshoe,” or city council, in 2003, the same year as Ald. Mark Mahoney of Ward 6, who did not seek re-election.

The “horseshoe” is a nickname that Edwards says refers to the shape of the oval table used by the city council in the downtown municipal building.

During Edwards’ time as interim mayor, Mahoney says, “There were things that I didn’t agree with him on, some of the political hiring, the budget process, but overall the city still ran.”

“It’ll be kind of interesting to see how he reacts after being on the other side, especially on the budget issues,” he says.

Others like Steve Combs, president of the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, will remember Edwards’ attention to blighted housing.

“[Edwards] did in three months, some stuff that hadn’t been done in three years,” says Combs. “He was a great ally in Enos Park moving a specific project forward. The level of communication has been very good.”

“I like taking people’s causes, and taking them forward,” says Edwards.

After April 29, Edwards will continue to take them forward, this time representing Ward 1.

Known for his casual wear at city council committee meetings as a former alderman, Edwards says that after wearing a suit and tie as mayor, “sweatshirts are out.”

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.

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