Highland Park mayoral candidates and Councilwomen and disagreed sharply over the existence of deficit spending in the city’s budget at the League of Women Voters on Sunday.
While speaking to the crowd of about 500 at the , Rotering called for an end to the past three years of deficit spending. After the debate, her opponent said that Highland Park had a surplus in 2008, and has not engaged in deficit spending during her six-year tenure on the City Council.
The difference may be in the definition.
Spending reserve funds
Olian claimed the city had surplus cash in 2008. However, she does not consider the use of cash reserves to balance the 2009 and 2010 budgets as spending money Highland Park did not have. Deficit spending, according to Olian, is "borrowing money to pay for expenses."
“In 2008, we finished with a surplus. We used excess reserves [in 2009 and 2010] for the rest.”
Olian said that Highland Park had more than enough excess cash to use those dollars to meet budget shortfalls. Currently, the city's reserve fund balance is at 40 percent of its annual budget.
“We don’t just have enough for a rainy day, we have enough for a thunderstorm,” Olian said.
Rotering, who has been serving on the City Council since 2009, said she was not referring to 2008 in her comments. She was talking about 2009, 2010 and 2011 when either the reserves were used to meet expenses or . She considers both actions deficit spending.
“The gap was filled by a [property tax] levy increase,” Rotering said about the current year. “A tax increase is not meeting expenses.”
Difficult cuts ahead
The candidates, both of of whom opposed the tax levy increase, discussed a variety of subjects on Sunday, including their views on city government, public safety and the need to foster economic development.
Rotering said that she'd like to see the City Council begin the process of assembling the budget earlier than in past years.
"The easy cuts have already been made," Rotering said. "[Now] we need to use a scalpel."
She suggested outsourcing some services as one way to save taxpayers some money, as well as cooperating with other governmental entities such as the Park District and schools.
Olian said that the budget was a spartan work of cooperation between all council members, making further cuts difficult. She said a 10 percent reduction to all nonessential expenditures would only cut a resident's property tax bill by 1 percent.
“We have to look at economic development to increase revenue through sales taxes,” said Olian, who is one of the founding members of the Downtown Business Alliance, a partnership between the city, downtown business owners and landlords. The candidate said she sees a continued strong role for the group.
Though Rotering said that she was open to easing land use restrictions for local businesses, she also noted that sales tax revenue came primarily from outside Highland Park’s central business district.
“Sixty percent of sales tax revenue comes from car sales. That's an industry that's having a difficult time,” Rotering said, indicating that filling vacant downtown store fronts is not the panacea some believe it to be.
Government's mission and securing grants
Both candidates were asked to explain their view of the city government's mission. Olian said the mission was to "set policy that furthers your health and your safety and your prosperity," and to make investments "that will benefit you."
Rotering said the city government's mission is "public safety, public works, economic development, community development [and] providing human services." She also stressed the value of good communication between the city government and taxpayers, pointing to the neighborhood meetings she initiated last year where residents got the chance to learn more about the City Council.
The candidates were also asked about their ability to secure outside grants for Highland Park.
Rotering touted her experience with the Moraine Township Advisory Council as one way she had extended resources. Olian talked about how she had secured a grant from a private citizen to keep Shorelines, a publication for senior citizens, alive when it was about to fold.
Both candidates finished in a very traditional way. They asked for everyone’s vote.
See video highlights by clicking the images to the right.
Editor's Note: After the forum, Nancy Rotering said that she misspoke when stating that sixty percent of sales tax revenue comes from car sales. She meant to say that sixty percent of sales tax revenue comes from the Skokie Corridor Business District.