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David Giuliani: Wells-Armstrong in good position for 2021

May 26, 2019

The good news that Kankakee residents received last week could help Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong win a second term in 2021.

Despite her relative quiet lately, something good happened for her constituents. They opened their property tax bills and found the city portion went in an unusual direction — down. By a lot.

The city’s property tax for a median-valued house dropped by 30 percent. Last year, the bill for that house fell to $1,731, from $2,460, a reduction of more than $700.

This decrease was offset by a 2-percentage-point increase in the sales tax last summer, new money that is dedicated to the city’s struggling police and fire pension funds.

The sales tax is paid by anyone who shops in Kankakee, including out-of-towners, shifting at least some of the burden away from residents. Compared to staggering property tax bills, the sales tax is not nearly as noticeable.

The tax shift was proposed by Alderman Chris Curtis, R-6, in 2018, an idea which Wells-Armstrong supported.

In Illinois, we are known for our high property taxes. So, taxpayers notice when they fall. If property taxes stay lower, voters will remember Wells-Armstrong and others who helped make that happen. Even a city critic noted the lower tax bills during a city committee meeting this week.

This is not the only area where Wells-Armstrong is finding success.

After she was elected in 2017, the police chief resigned unexpectedly and Wells-Armstrong was left trying to find a replacement. She picked former state police officer Price Dumas as the interim chief, but the council voted him down several times. He eventually resigned.

Wells-Armstrong learned from that experience. The second time around, she sought the City Council’s input and included aldermen in the hiring process. The council unanimously approved her selection, Frank Kosman, a former suburban police chief. As a result, aldermen are invested in Kosman, rooting for his success.

This example shows the mayor is growing in her job. That’s what leaders do. They learn their lessons and get better at their work.

As a leader, Wells-Armstrong also must speak uncomfortable truths at times. She has done that with the troubled regional sewer plant, the Kankakee Regional Metropolitan Agency. As mayor, she is a member of the agency’s board. In that role, she has been skeptical of some of the agency’s past practices, especially the ones that resulted in the $700,000 that was spent on software that reportedly does not work.

She wondered why the agency never entered into an agreement with the vendor, the agency’s longtime executive director, Richard Simms, before he started work on the software.

“That should have been done on Day 1. We should have a contract for what services and products we are to get at the end of a project,” Wells-Armstrong said during a meeting.

Of course, that’s true. But no other board member has spoken so plainly in public about what led to this situation.

While Wells-Armstrong is on a good run, we cannot ignore the problems in the city government — the longstanding pension crisis, controversies in code enforcement, the city attorney who routinely mishandles government openness issues.

But the plunge in property taxes will mean a lot when voters vote for mayor in 2021. Yes, a lot can happen between now and then. But halfway through her term, Wells-Armstrong, who already is raising campaign money, seems well-positioned on the political scene.

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