Sparrow points to numbers for support

By Michael Berg

One recent focus in the DeKalb mayoral race has been on the travel of Mayor Greg Sparrow. Sparrow has defended his travel expenses by saying he’s brought millions of dollars back to the city.

Sparrow’s opponent in the race, 2nd Ward Alderman Michael Welsh, has often accused Sparrow of unnecessary travel.

At the recent League of Women Voter’s debate, Welsh said trips to Chicago and Springfield are important for a mayor to take, but trips to other places like Denver and San Diego do not benefit DeKalb. “I will fight in Springfield and Chicago, and work with people in the nation’s capital to see we get our fair share of tax dollars,” Welsh said.

Sparrow’s trip expenditures also were brought into question by 6th Ward Ald. Jamie Pennington on March 1 when Pennington filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections alleging Sparrow had “double-billed” the city and his personal campaign fund for the same travel expenses. The charges have been dismissed, but Pennington said the state board agreed with the complaint.

“The state board has reaffirmed that our complaint was filed on justifiable grounds,” Pennington said in a prepared statement. He said the complaint was dismissed because Citizens for Sparrow no longer claim to pay Mr. Sparrow for travel items already paid by the City of DeKalb.

However, Al Zimmer, State Board of Elections general counsel, said the board decided there was no problem.

“I’ve been criticized for what’s been called a lot of travel,” Sparrow said. “My involvement in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Illinois Municipal League has benefited the city greatly.”

Sparrow used numbers to make his point. “Look at all the money out of the total budget,” he said. “Taken all together (over my 12 years as mayor) the city has spent $60,189 on my travel. That’s six one-hundredths of 1 percent of the total budget.”

“I brought back ideas that saved $2.4 million in property tax, $3.2 million to date on the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district and millions more because of networking.”

Sparrow’s involvement in the U.S Conference of Mayors began at their meeting in Denver in 1983, Sparrow said. “At the time, the city was under threat of a lawsuit from Warner Cable concerning deregulation. I was directed by the city council to get support (at the meeting) in the event of a lawsuit.”

Sparrow said he received the support, and he and the council saw an opportunity. “I told the council that if I got involved it would necessitate an annual conference,” he said.

Sparrow said it was at the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Leadership Institute in 1983 that the property tax savings idea, modeled after events in Peoria, saved property owners tax money by using their own statistician came about.

“We saved taxpayers 2.4 million over 10 years in tax dollars we wouldn’t have to levy because of this idea I brought back from the conference,” he said.

Another idea brought back from his travels was the TIF district, Sparrow said. A TIF is used to generate economic growth in impoverished areas. Tax rates are frozen for a specified period of time.

“We take that extra money and put it back into the area to improve it,” he said. “The state allowed us to recapture the sales tax.”

“Then Wal-Mart comes in 1986 to the TIF district and creates a boost in the sales tax, which is a good deal for us. To date, we have received $3.2 million from the state.”

Sparrow said the TIF district may be in jeopardy. “I’m now lobbying to convince Governor Edgar and the general assembly that we should still get this money from the state,” he said. “I will fight to keep the TIF district in place. I would argue that it’s a worthwhile investment.”

Sparrow said networking has helped him bring back tens of millions of dollars in new construction and infrastructure improvement.

“If I’m not there fighting for dollars, we won’t get them,” Sparrow said. “That’s what it takes to be a mayor these days.”