Marc Tiritilli used two recent Illinois attorney general rulings against the Town of Normal’s previous public comment policy to accuse Mayor Chris Koos of a “failure of leadership” during a virtual debate in the mayor’s race on Tuesday.
Koos, who has held the office since 2003 and narrowly defeated Tiritilli in 2017, noted the rulings were non-binding and said the town already had “corrected” its rules to allow public comment on non-agenda items during council meetings.
“We are always interested in hearing what our citizens have to say,” Koos said. “A good example of that is our comprehensive plan that we just finished where we had over 1,800 citizen inputs.”
Tiritilli, who teaches at Illinois Wesleyan University, said he would further expand public comment and seek more public input if he's elected.
“No matter who wins this election, there will be thousands of people who want it the other way,” Tiritilli said during the debate hosted by Pantagraph Media. “They are still residents. They still need representation. It can’t be this winner-take-all mentality we’ve been going with."
While Tiritilli said political division is the town’s biggest challenge, Koos sees COVID recovery as the town’s top priority.
Koos, a small business owner, noted the town expects to receive about $10.2 million from the federal government in COVID relief over the next two years. The candidates agreed on many ways the town should spend the money, including grants to businesses and non-profit groups, and help for struggling families. But Tiritilli also suggested the town use the money to address road repairs and public pensions.
Koos said while the rules on how federal COVID relief funds can be spent are “opaque,” they can’t be used to pay for pensions. Tiritilli suggested the town use the COVID money to cover other expenses so the town's general revenue could help pay down pensions.
“It’s not that easy Mr. Tiritilli,” Koos said.
“But we have a good staff that would be able to execute it,” Tiritilli responded.
Koos said the only way to boost spending on infrastructure and pensions as his challenger has pledged is through higher taxes or cutting services.
“You’ve got to find the money somewhere. The budget is not going to automatically grow,” Koos said.
Tiritilli claimed he could pay down the town’s debt and increase funding for public safety pensions and roads without raising taxes, adding the town should have used its $6 million surplus to more aggressively pay off its bonded debt.
The town’s debt load is about $81 million, which Tiritilli has said is too high.
“The money is available by changing our priorities,” Tiritilli said. ”We don’t need to spend $1.4 million to a design firm to give us options for what kind of boulevards we want on West College Avenue, we need to take the $1.4 million and fix College Avenue. We can dress is up later.”
Koos said he’s proud of the town’s debt management, noting the town refinanced its debt to save the town $8 million in interest payments.
“We have a very robust plan to pay back that debt over the next 20-plus years,” said Koos, noting the surplus was a one-time adjustment to help the town restructure its debt payments.
Koos and Tiritilli both said they preferred a more uniform economic development package to try attracting businesses. Koos said local economic developers and local taxing bodies are working on such a plan.
Tiritilli said he opposes tax increment financing districts as an economic incentive and said the town should not have extended its TIF district for Uptown, saying it hurt the Unit 5 school district.
In a TIF, increases in property tax revenue that a new development generates are used for that development.
Koos said he’s "pro-TIF" if done "correctly," and noted all of the other taxing bodies must sign off on the deal for it to happen.
The last four years
Koos cited Rivian's decision to take over the shuttered Mitsubishi Motors plant in Normal as the town’s greatest success in the last four years. He said automaker liked the town’s culture and community spirit.
The mayor largely praised the town’s response to the pandemic, including creation of a citizen’s task force to provide input on all COVID-related matters. Koos said there were some things he could have done differently, but said he couldn’t define any missed opportunities in the last four years.
When asked how the town would have been run differently had he been elected four years ago, Tiritilli said he would not have moved forward on the planned Uptown underpass project “quite so hard” as Koos has, and would have created a better dynamic on the council, while spending more on roads and pensions.
Koos described himself as “collaborative and collegial” and said he’s a consensus-builder who talks frequently with each council member and the city manager -- though he indicated that has become more difficult in recent years.
“For the longest time, until recently, that’s been what our situation has been,” Koos said in an apparent reference to Stan Nord, a first-term council member who frequently clashes with the mayor and other council members over town policy.
Tiritilli likened his experience as a teacher dealing with unruly students to one that could bring cohesion to the council.
“That’s the challenge, how do you deal with it when it isn’t so smooth. That’s the real measure of how collaborative and how collegial you can be," Tiritilli said.
The virtual debate was viewed on Pantagraph.com and moderated by Central Illinois Editor Chris Coates. WGLT hosted a forum featuring the two candidates on March 9.
Election day is April 6. Early voting is underway.
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