The race to replace outgoing West Salem Village President Larry Simms pits local business owner Dan Baker against semi-retired collegiate professor Dr. Jon Webber.
Simms elected not to run for another term after filling in at the position following the resignation of then-mayor Don Cornelius and being voted on outright in an uncontested race for a two-year unexpired term. Baker served on the West Salem Board of Trustees from 2011–15 as Chairman of the Finance Committee, while Webber has reported on the happenings of the board’s monthly meetings through his Facebook page, West Salem Illinois Talks, since February of 2018.
Webber, who moved into the village roughly two years ago, feels his position as a newcomer to the community could prove beneficial to West Salem.
“I see that there is a lot of potential in this community that people don’t recognize,” said Webber. “As somebody coming in (to the community) with a fresh look, I see there are a lot of things that could be done in West Salem if we gave attention to them.
“That really was the impetus of me running, as well as seeing that the current board has a lot of issues with doing things the right way.”
In Webber’s estimation, those issues have stalled the growth of the village.
“They just seem to spin their wheels a lot,” he noted. “So I thought, ‘Hey, let’s move this place ahead.’”
Baker cited a similar motivation as his reasoning for approaching the office.
“Looking at all the problems up there, I decided to go up there for four more years,” he said, citing his previous experience on the board. “Just to stop the bickering and be neighborly and just to stop the fighting.
“We’ve got to live with these people; let’s stop this and get along.”
One issue that has been much discussed by the board over the past year is the status of the spillway and reservoir on the outskirts of the village limits, as the former needs to undergo some degree of repair in order to stop the lowering of the water level and possibly restore it to previous levels. Baker’s proposition would be to transfer ownership of the reservoir from the village to a group of landowners living around the lake he says have created an incorporated body.
“We just need to work with the group, they formed that LLC or whatever out there, and work on getting that back to the homeowners,” he said. “And if we do make any money from it, use that money to fix up our little new lake on the actual inside of town.
“We can fix that up for the people to fish.”
Baker cited Steve Thomson, one of the landowners in question, as his source for the formation of the LLC, also stating that he believed the new ownership would still be at least partially open to allowing the public access to the reservoir.
“It sounds like the group out there is willing to let whoever go out and fish and still keep doing that,” he explained. “Hopefully it would still remain open to the public.”
Baker cited financial concerns as the reason for his plan to sell the reservoir, also noting that a large portion of the body of water resides beyond village limits.
“We’re looking at $60–80,000 to fix (the spillway) right, to do something that will last a while and make it usable for the community,” he said. “We don’t have the money for it.”
Webber not only intends to have the spillway fixed, but to reach out to an outside source for recommendations on how best to avoid long-term problems in the future.
“As far as the water level, I think we need to get some expert advice,” he said. “I think the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should come in and tell us the best way to take care of that particular lake, spillway and how we can maintain the water level so that there are not expensive things that come up later on down the road.”
Further, Webber explained his position that the village needs to clarify what its responsibilities are in terms of the property surrounding the lake as well.
“I think we need to first of all find out exactly what is the problem with the property that the village owns right now,” he stated. “When I talk to the village utility workers, they don’t seem to understand why there is a problem out there.
“So I think what we need to take a look at is…what is our property, what are we not doing and what should we be doing so that we can make sure that the property is being maintained.”
Both men highlight waterline replacement as a primary concern for their prospective administrations, particularly some problem areas previously cited by West Salem Fire Chief Harvey Fenton, though their approach to the issue greatly differs.
Webber considers the waterline issue to be a major infrastructure problem within the village limits.
“The single biggest issue facing the village right now is infrastructure,” he said. “Infrastructure is definitely the first thing I would look at, making sure we protect the village residents from fires, just in case that ever happens.”
As such, Webber hopes to resolve these issues as soon as possible should he be elected.
“My solution would be to get together, very quickly after we are sworn in, and look at ways that we can fast track that situation and we can take care of the needs of the people of that area,” said Webber. “We need to get ourselves into gear and take care of that immediately, because we do not want loss of life, loss of property and we do not want lawsuits against the village because we knew these issues were there and we did nothing about them.”
Webber also is open to the usage of TIF monies on waterline repair, stating that such infrastructure is vital to attracting new businesses to the village.
“If you don’t have good water pressure, why would (a business) want to move into this community,” he said. “We’ve got to fix these things, and that’s where some of the TIF money comes into play.”
Webber advocated for outside assistance to help the village track the source of its water-loss problems as well.
While Baker also expressed concern over the status of waterlines within the village, pledging to make them a priority, he believes going through the grant application process to be the most fiscally responsible approach.
“There are grants available, so we don’t have to use our money for it,” he stated. “We should be able to get it fixed up and go from there.”
Baker specifically shot down the idea of using monies from the village’s TIF Fund to tackle the problem.
“We shouldn’t have to use our TIF money or anything for that,” he said. “We should be able to get grants and get it covered. That’s why we pay taxes.
“We need to be conservative, and not spend.”
The former village board member also blamed the village’s waterlines for some of its recent budgetary expansion, as the most recent budget approved by the current board accounts for more than $1 million.
“Just keep working on those waterlines,” said Baker on how to lower the budget. “We’ve got heavy water leaks; that can only account for $10,000, maybe $20,000 (in lost revenue), but it’s some way to start working it down.”
The two mayoral candidates also emphasized different water-related issues they felt the village needs to prioritize in the coming years.
Baker stated that monies from the village’s TIF Fund should be used to replace water meters currently located in the basements of some businesses within the TIF District, particularly along the town square.
“We have a current system, but for whatever reason (utility worker) Tod (Goble) doesn’t like it,” he said. “I need to work with Tod and either we fix up that system and then we use some TIF money to buy those businesses some electric water meters to start or we get a completely different system.”
It was also suggested by Baker that the village budget to provide homeowners with new meters from its water or sewerage budgets, a little at a time each year.
“That will free up our guys to be able to work on these other projects that need to be done around town.”
For Webber, it’s the village’s storm drain issues that need attention.
“We need to make sure when it comes to the storm drains, that there is adequate work to take care of those things that are broken,” he explained. “They’re causing things like sink holes in the middle of people’s yards.
“We need to discover where they’re at, decide what is the number one priority, then go for it, instead of just talking about it and talking about it and talking about it.”
Webber suggested that village committees could be used to speed up the matter of identifying and planning to resolve storm drain issues.
Baker also noted that he would like to use TIF money to redo curbing at some business fronts in town.
“I know several businesses have brought up their curbsides and stuff like that,” he said. “I know we need to use some of that money, so that’s kind of what I would leaning towards.”
But his first priority, should he win the office, is to reduce the arguing and increase the participation level of the board.
“Back when I was on the board, we actually took turns reading water meters,” Baker recalled. “We had a lot of involvement over what I think this current board does.”
And that process begins with the election of a new board, according to Baker.
“Hopefully we’ll get a new board, and it will be a lot smoother going,” he said. “Stop this bickering.”
Webber would seek to prioritize matters that he feels would be of danger to the community.
“We would certainly want to deal with things that would cause loss of life, loss of property and cause problems down the road as our number one priority,” he stated. “Then we need to look at whether we’re just going to do the thing that is convenient, taking more money and time down the road if we don’t do it right the first time.”
Webber also espoused ideas such as instituting an Adopt-a-Park program, seasonal “Kitchen Cabinet” town hall meetings, partnering with the West Salem Development Association to determine what types of businesses to attempt to attract into the village and how to do so, which would include local organizations and residents getting more involved in the village.
“You engage the public in taking care of some of these needs, while still using the village resources to make sure things are being taken care of,” noted Webber. “We’ve got to have a public-private partnership to make these things happen.”
The position of West Salem Village President will be one of the races on the ballot during the April 2 Consolidated Election on Tuesday.