Chris Harris practiced for last week’s mayoral debate with Mayor Anthony Calderone and it showed. Harris was clearly the aggressor at the March 19 debate held at Forest Park Middle School that was sponsored by the Forest Park Review and the Chamber of Commerce.
Harris, a village council member who is challenging Calderone in the April 7 election, blasted the three-term incumbent as lacking vision and argued that it was time for a change.
“Forest Park has become stagnant,” Harris said. “I think with time comes complacency.”
Harris said that after nearly 16 years as mayor (and four as commissioner) Calderone still has not developed plans to combat flooding after heavy rains and has no vision for developing the Altenheim property, purchased by village government 14 years ago.
Harris added that Forest Park should dedicate some sales tax revenue to a sewer fund to pay for improvements to the town’s sewer system.
Calderone said the village’s engineering company, Christopher Burke Engineering, will be coming out soon, probably after the election, with a study about how to improve the village’s sewer system.
Harris was not impressed.
“We don’t need election season promises; we need actual action,” Harris said. “I plan on taking action immediately. It’s been 16 years; there’s no sewer fund. River Forest has a sewer fund. We don’t share data with Oak Park and River Forest who already have these studies done and have very similar systems. Christopher Burke [Engineering] is doing those studies as well. We could save money by sharing that data.”
Harris also criticized the mayor for not having a plan for what to do with 13 acres the village purchased from the Altenheim German Old People’s Home more than decade ago.
“Paying $400,000 a year for 14 years and we’ve done nothing with it,” Harris said. “There hasn’t been a discussion until 2012 when I had a town hall meeting. That’s fact; you can’t debate that.”
Calderone said, “Nothing’s happened with it, but had I not been the leader at that time, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today. I took the initiative at that time knowing that this was a large piece of property that’s never going to present itself again to the village. With the village owning the property we control it. We’re not at the mercy at the developer coming in saying they want to build something there and if they’re within the current zoning codes we can’t stop them. I agree something has to take place; I agree that at some time in the future, collectively, the community is going to rise to the challenge. We’re going to determine what the best use is. If I have anything to say about it, my preference is green space, not just the grass, developed somehow, but green space.”
Harris responded, “With all due respect after that, there’s still no vision.”
Calderone said Harris was using the Altenheim property as a political issue and that in two years, when the village finishes paying off the note used to purchase the property, money will become available that could be used to develop the property in some way.
“This conversation has come up each election cycle and then it tends to calm down,” Calderone said.
Harris promised to freeze the village’s property tax levy for four years if elected. The village portion of a resident’s property tax bill is a small portion of the overall tax a homeowner pays, but Harris said that every little bit of relief helps.
Calderone responded that the Illinois tax cap law limits the increase in the village’s levy to the rate of inflation which has been very low in recent years. Calderone said that most of the small increases in the village’s property tax levy have been directed to the police and fire pension funds which are in relatively healthy condition.
“Roughly 80 percent of that new money is going to fund our police and fire pension funds,” Calderone said. “It’s going to be really difficult to freeze property taxes and continue funding the police and fire pension funds at the level I’ve been doing for the last 16 years.”
When asked about Village Administrator Tim Gillian, Harris said Gillian has been micromanaged by Calderone.
“I really don’t think we’ve seen what Tim can do,” Harris said. “I think he deserves the opportunity to spread his wings, if you will, and see what he can do.”
Calderone brushed off the charge that he micromanages Gillian, who was a close political ally and a friend of Calderone’s during the 12 years that Gillian served on the village council.
“I can tell you absolutely that Tim Gillian has a very independent mind,” Calderone said. I’m not in there daily telling Tim Gillian do this or do that. He actually does a good job of managing all of our department heads and taking care of the day-to-day operations. The whole micromanaging stuff is just a bunch of hogwash.”
Calderone said he deserved credit for leading the village to balanced budgets and not laying off a single village employee through the Great Recession and the subsequent dramatic fall in sales tax revenues. He said sales taxes have finally rebounded to the level it was in 2008. Calderone also took credit for obtaining a $2.5 million grant that the village has received to upgrade the Roosevelt Road corridor and a $1.8 million grant to upgrade Madison Street west of Desplaines Avenue in conjunction with neighboring River Forest.
Calderone also pointed to his decision to have a Forest Park police officer assigned to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, a decision led to the village receiving $1.8 million in drug seizure money, he said.
Calderone, who was first elected mayor in 1999, acknowledged that he has been in office long enough so almost everyone will disagree with some decision he has made.
“[Vote for me] if you mostly agree with the job I have done as mayor of the village of Forest Park over the last 15 years. I didn’t say everything, because I’m human and I too am going to make mistakes,” he said.
Harris reiterated that it’s time for a change.
“I have the enthusiasm and fire,” Harris said. “I think we should thank Tony for his service. I think it’s time for a fresh voice.”
This article has been changed to calrify how long Anthony Calderone has served as mayor of Forest Park.