Republicans vying for a seat in DuPage County Board District 2 had a chance last weekend to set themselves apart from one another in the crowded Primary race.
At the Elmhurst League of Women Voters candidate forum at Elmhurst College Sunday, the audience heard from Michael Loftus of Lisle, Elaine Zannis of Oak Brook, Zachary Wilson of Lombard, and Pete DiCianni, Charles Mueller, Sean Noonan and Rafael Rivadeneira, all of Elmhurst. Candidate Jim Long of Downers Grove did not attend.
They answered questions posed by the League on transportation, affordable housing and attracting green businesses in DuPage County. But it was the audience questions, like "Will you sign up for a pension from DuPage County if elected?," that perhaps most differentiated the candidates.
Only one candidate answered definitively "yes" to that question, and that was Elmhurst Mayor Pete DiCianni. He said he plans to keep his position as mayor if elected to DuPage County Board, and that puts him in a "unique situation."
"I'm willing to give up my mayoral pay, compensation and pension to do this job. But I'm willing to do two jobs for the price of one," he said.
DiCianni, who sits on the DuPage Stormwater Commission, said he already is doing dual duty working for Elmhurst and the county. He said County Board positions are a lot of work.
"The County Board oversees a half-billion-dollar budget," he said. "Half a billion. This is not a small job to do, but I'm willing to do two for one. I'm considered one of the hardest working mayors in DuPage. … As mayor, I have a different perspective than most."
Zannis, who is a village trustee in Oak Brook, said she doesn't know yet if she would accept a county pension. In addition to her work as a village trustee in Oak Brook, she said she worked at several Fortune 500 companies before she founded Oak Brook Real Estate Inc.
"I don't have a pension. I pay for my own benefits. I don't know what it's like to have those things paid for me," she said. "Do I work more than 1,000 hours (for the village of Oak Brook)? You bet I do. I'm also a real estate agent, which is a very unstable income. Will I (accept a pension)? I don't know. I'm going to wait and see what it is that I'm making a decision on."
The rest of the candidates said, unequivocally, that they would not accept a county pension.
"I will not take a pension. No benefits either," Loftus said. "I will not support people who do take it. That's my strong opinion. This is a public service job."
Rivadeneira said this goes to the heart of politics in Illinois.
"We need to change the culture. (Pensions) are a magnet for career politicians in Illinois," he said. "The pensions are absolutely outrageous for part-time work."
He said board members are vested in eight years and are eligible for 80 percent of their salary for the rest of their lives.
"That's unheard of in the private sector," he said.
Rivadeneira also said that at $50,000, board member salaries are too high and should be cut in half.
"We also should be posting salaries and benefits of employees in DuPage County (online)," he said. "Posting that information brings more light to the issue. The problem is spending. We don't need to incur more expenses."
Mueller, Wilson and Noonan all said they would not take a pension. Wilson, a Lombard village trustee, said he receives "a modest pension" already from his 28-year career in law enforcement.
"As far as pensions for part-time politicians, I don't think anyone should accept it," he said, adding he also would advocate cutting board members' salaries by 10 percent.
Noonan, a police officer in Bloomingdale, said he has a pension in the making.
"I hopefully will be able to complete my career—30 years—but to make it clear, I will not be a part of a second pension. I also will not participate in health benefits" at the county level, he said.
Another topic on the minds of everyone at the forum was how the candidates view spending. While DuPage County Board is currently in a positive financial position and has made some changes to "clean up" how the county operates, all the candidates said more can be done.
Most of the candidates, like Zannis, have a strong business background. DiCianni operates DiCianni Graphics in Addison, Wilson is an attorney, Loftus and his wife operate Iten Industries, Rivadeneira founded Epiphany Portfolios, and Mueller said he and his wife operate two businesses that employ 110 people.
Wilson said he is "a frustrated taxpayer fed up with inefficient government."
"We need to change at every level of government. We need to stop spending taxpayer money," he said. "People complain about the politicians spending taxpayer money. It's the professional staff who have their hands on the purse strings, and we need to make those people accountable also."
Wilson said government should only perform duties that government is uniquely qualified to do, and everything else should be handled by private sector businesses.
"Any area where the private sector can do it better is wasteful spending," he said. He pointed to his own village of Lombard, where he said there had been too many mechanics on staff, costing the village too much money.
"I have not looked deeply enough into DuPage County, but I know (those situations are) there. I've been finding them in Lombard and eliminating them, and will do the same at the county level."
The candidates agree there are ways to reduce county spending by consolidating or eliminating areas of county government, and they can be found upon review of the 600-page county budget.
"I have gone through the budget," Rivadeneira said. "The biggest waste is layers of government that do the same thing."
He also mentioned eliminating pensions and healthcare for board members, and eliminating the Forestry Department and the Airport Authority.
"Why is the government involved in owning an airport?" he said.
Loftus said reducing wasteful spending should begin with small cuts.
"There's consolidation, outsourcing, little things," he said. "How do you get there? … Start slowly, then it will snowball."
There are 170 entities in county government, Zannis said, and many can be consolidated to eliminate redundancy.
"We target that, and when we balance the budget and have a few dollars left over, we have served our citizens well," she said.
Cutting county spending will improve the lives and economic conditions of residents, Mueller said.
"I see the daily struggles of people living paycheck to paycheck. They've had enough of skyrocketing property tax increases to balance the budgets," he said. "You've got to reduce taxes. You can't continue to increase property taxes and keep putting that burden on the taxpayer. It's coming to a point where people can't afford to live here."
DiCianni said it's a matter of "doing more with less." With the savings brought about by consolidation, more money could be spent on things like stormwater management, which is his pet project.
"Stormwater is probably one of my single biggest issues," he said. "As mayor in my first term, I dealt with a $7 million deficit, but also one of the worst (flooding) disasters of the century in 2010. Many communities have issues with stormwater. I'm here to solve them. … A local government perspective at the county level will be valuable."
Zannis said she was motivated to run after watching financial "debacles" involving the DuPage Water Commission and the DuPage Housing Authority.
"We have to have accountability, transparency for every DuPage County entity that exists," she said. "We have to know where their money comes from, how they will spend it and who they are accountable to."
Other Questions Asked of Candidates:
Home foreclosures have been at record numbers over the past few years. How can the DuPage County Board take a role to develop affordable housing solutions?
Mueller: The county has little to do with the development of affordable housing. Foreclosures are a result of the collapse of the mortgage industry. Bring good jobs to DuPage and people will be able to afford a mortgage.
DiCianni: Advocates for affordable housing initiatives for seniors and people with disabilities. Community-based living and housing is the cost-effective way to deal with these populations. Advocates public-private partnerships with agencies like Ray Graham and Metropolitan Family Services of DuPage.
Wilson: The most common reason for foreclosures is lack of jobs. Create more private sector jobs, work with the tax assessor to figure out a fair and equitable tax system and foreclosures should go down.
Noonan: County Board has no direct role in creating affordable housing; that is the role of other agencies that get federal grants for such purposes. Keep taxes low and maintain median household salary and income and people will be able to afford a home.
Loftus: Has a hard time making the connection between foreclosures and affordable housing. They are two separate things. How do you determine what is affordable across 37 different communities in DuPage County? Believes there are places to live in DuPage County for anybody who lives within their means.
Zannis: Foreclosures are about jobs, bringing business to DuPage. If there is more accountability in county government, there will be more money to help us do more things for more people.
Rivadeneira: It is not the role of government to make affordable housing. We should be striving to make DuPage more prosperous. People are facing moving out of DuPage because the taxes are way too high. The emphasis should be on making DuPage more business-friendly, creating more jobs and prosperity and increasing property values.
Illinois has recently passed legislation on "green" jobs. What is your vision for bringing green business and jobs into DuPage?
Noonan: Welcomes green businesses, but DuPage as a whole will welcome inquiries from any interested businesses. Look into developing unused industrial parks.
Loftus: DuPage County government buildings have a history of green operations. But when it comes to jobs, the person out of work won't care what color the job is. The main focus should be on making business opportunities available in the toxic environment that has been created by the state. We have many amenities businesses need and look for and we need to expand on those things, including green jobs.
Zannis: Legislation related to green jobs has caused the curriculum at universities to change. Four years from now, we're going to have a graduating class that will know something we know nothing about: green homes, green energies, green technologies. There is so much federal funding relative to that subject, we can't ignore it. What are we going to do today to be proactive? Let's take advantage of it.
Rivadeneira: Would love to see more green jobs. At the same time, would love to see any kind of jobs in DuPage. That will happen by keeping taxes low, continuing to make DuPage business-friendly. Don't pass up any opportunities for jobs.
Mueller: DuPage's most limitless resource is its workforce, and DuPage can and will become the place for green jobs. But it's important to focus on corporations looking for ready access to transportation, communication and a technology-savvy atmosphere. We can be a leader in the green movement, there's a place for that, but all business should be looked at.
DiCianni: Drives a hybrid and uses state-of-the-art green technology at his printing company. But Illinois is dead last in job creation. Green up DuPage by maintaining the fertile soil of business development: low property taxes, low sales taxes, high quality of life.
Wilson: Green jobs shouldn't be a separate agenda. Like ethics, should be talking about green jobs in everything we do. But we're going backwards with mandates like green vehicles that no one can afford, green toilets that have to be flushed three times and light bulbs that take 20 minutes to light all the way up. Let the private industry figure out how to get those jobs green.
What are your ideas on expanding and improving public transportation?
Rivadeneira: Not sure where inter-county transportation can expand beyond what we already have with Pace and Metra. People do need public transportation, but it's also important to make our roads less crowded for vehicles; perhaps an expansion of Roosevelt Road is in order.
Mueller: We need a shift to bring public transportation into the 21st century, especially in light of our commitment to become an environmentally conscious world. Increase Park and Ride options, express routes, and expand Pace and Metra to be more efficient.
DiCianni: The western access to O'Hare, at $3.6 billion, is a huge transportation project, and it will include options for public transit, whether it will be a rapid transit bus or high-speed rail system. The project is creating 30,000 construction jobs, 60,000 permanent jobs and 1,800 Elmhurst jobs. DiCianni was appointed by the governor to sit on the council for this public access program. He also supports Ride DuPage, which offers affordable transportation to seniors and people with disabilities.
Wilson: Doesn't see a big demand for increased public transportation in DuPage. Sees Pace buses that have only five or six people in them. Maybe the buses should be smaller. People are really looking for improvements to roads for car transportation.
Noonan: Work closely with Metra and Pace. Would like to be part of the transportation committee in DuPage. As a police officer, he is on the roads constantly. Promoting public transportation will alleviate backups and reduce wear and tear on roads, which eventually costs the public money.
Loftus: The needs are being addressed through private business. It's not the place of government to dictate how businesses should govern themselves, this is a business decision. It's not for the County Board to tell Pace, Metra, RTA how to operate.
Zannis: Not everybody has a car. Some people live in low-income housing or have a hard time paying their mortgage. We need to make sure those people have access. The only way to get jobs in DuPage is to get people from their home to their business. The best way to do that is through Pace and Metra, as well as car-pooling.
What projects should DuPage County Board seek to accomplish in the next five years?
DiCianni: Western access to O'Hare, already under way, and stormwater management, including work in the Busse Woods corridor. If we can make the creek go down in Cook County, it will help Districts 1 and 2. Also, the Starcom public safety radio system, funded by the state, will put all communities on the same channel to assist in homeland defense and public safety initiatives.
Wilson: Doesn't have any pet projects. Will evaluate all on their merits, starting with the projects that don't cost any money. Most things can be done better by the private sector than by government. Government needs to do three things: ensure safety of citizens, perform functions that can only be performed by government and help those that truly need it.
Noonan: We have to make responsible decisions. He would have liked the juvenile detention center to remain open, but it was a responsible decision to close it, saving the county $600,000 to $800,000 a year. Those types of consolidation decisions should continue.
Loftus: Shrink government, outsource where possible and increase transparency. Everything that is done should be done in the open.
Zannis: Shrink government, eliminate reduntant functions to reduce the budget.
Rivadeneira: Don't spend money on problems that don't exist. Get past rhetoric about shrinking government and put forth specific policies. Eliminate pensions and healthcare and cut salaries in half for County Board members, consolidate.
Mueller: Reduce taxes, pension reform. Maybe the state will take our lead.
Will you be able to give the necessary time to the County Board position?
Noonan: Got permission from his police chief in Bloomingdale, had legal council look at the legality of serving on the board while maintaining a job as a police officer and all supported his run. His superiors will accommodate his schedule.
Loftus: Works with his wife and has been in business for 36 years. He will have no problem taking off as much time as necessary to do the job. If elected, he will give up his position on the DuPage County Zoning Board of Appeals.
DiCianni: Family business is run by his three sisters on a day-to-day basis. Serves as a part-time mayor in a city that has a full-time manager, which allows him to do things like serve on the DuPage Stormwater Commission and the DuCom Board. Other mayors say he works too hard, but he said he has "a fire in my belly." Wants to fix communities that have been dealing with stormwater issues for too long. He said his record speaks for itself.
Rivadeneira: Self employed, would like to be a citizen legislator because there are far too many career politicians out there. He can add value and give it the time necessary. Thinks it's a conflict of interest serving a city and being on the County Board. Not enough hours in the day to do both jobs.
Mueller: Self employed and has several partners to help out with the business when he is serving the county. Family first, then District 2. Also doesn't believe there are enough hours in the day to do more than one public sector job. "Frankly, who are you kidding?" he said.
Zannis: Difficult to do two public jobs and do them well. She will resign her position on the Oak Brook Village Board if elected to the County Board.
Wilson: He will resign his position on the Lombard Village Board if elected to the County Board. His career as an attorney affords him flexibility to serve the county. He said he is a "workaholic."