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Q&A with Mark Eckert, mayor of Belleville and 2017-18 president of the Illinois Municipal League

IBJ: How long have you been involved with the Municipal League?
    Eckert: I started going faithfully to the conferences almost every year, and to anything that Municipal League held in our part of the state, since 2005, which was my first full year as mayor. I went to the conference that year and, quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect.  I met some people. The former mayor of Edwardsville, Gary Niebur, a past president, and I became friends ever since. Gary was one of those who encouraged me to put my name in the hat and consider some leadership positions.
p19 Eckert    One of those early years I went to Chicago and sat down with the mayor of Breese, Don Maue. He was a past president. He and I became good friends and had some really good conversations. Going to the league events, I met some people near and far, but some right in my own back yard that I really started to talk to.
    Some issues that happened locally got me involved in the Southwestern Council of Mayors, I’m past president now. A lot of those same people encouraged me to get involved with the IML. I went on the board in 2011.
    One of the reasons I agreed to put my name in the hat was the leadership of Brad Cole (the executive director of IML)), his leadership, his organization and how he’s handled our staff up there. I would have been hesitant, being a full-time mayor. I’ve been busy but I’ve not been overwhelmed in this job. I credit that to Brad and his staff.
    IBJ: What are some of your duties as president?
    Eckert: Last year, as first vice president, I had the opportunity to chair the Legislative Committee and to be on the Audit Committee and to be able to fill in, in the absence of the president. This year, in September when I became president of the league, I not only chair the executive committee meetings, I chair the board meetings. Occasionally there’s special phone conferences I’m on. I continue to be on the Legislative Committee because it’s a very important committee. But by nature of my office I have the ability to sit in on committee meetings and give input. And I do talk to Brad once or twice a week.
    IBJ: What’s the structure for the number of meetings you might be obligated to go to?
    Eckert: The one thing that made this job appealing being a full-time mayor is they do more things by phone conference. There’s not quite as much running to Springfield as there used to be. I’m not opposed to going to Springfield when needed. We have four major board meetings a year plus the conference in late September.
    We also have a number of executive board meetings throughout the year, usually by phone conference. And some of the committees are meeting every month to two months by phone.
    IBJ: What’s the nature of the conference in the fall?
    Eckert: We have 1,298 (municipalities and 1,260 members). The League is really doing a good job of reaching out. The whole purpose is to build strength in unity and to inform these cities and empower them, to fill them with opportunities. One thing I like about the League is when newly elected officials get on board, they hold sessions throughout the state to give training … on new legislation or tough topics.
    IBJ: You’re all kind of in the same boat.
    Eckert: We are, and that’s the message we’ve been trying to share, and in a sense comfort each other. We’re trying to do a better job of making sure our legislators don’t assume they know how we feel. When we all stand together as a voice there is unity. Up north there are a host of these mayors’ groups. They are very strong. They’ve proven there is strength in numbers.
    We’ve done a better job in recent years having a voice in Southwestern Illinois.
    I’m very proud. Belleville has never had a mayor as president of the League. But there have been a number from this area.
    IBJ: What are the big critical areas for towns?
    Eckert: The need for pension reform. The state not having a budget. Reduction in state funding. A couple of years ago, they held our payments. The city of Belleville was $1.7 million in arrears on income tax.
    We’re all pretty lean right now. Belleville is the largest city south of Springfield, and I have a paid police department and paid fire department. The pension situation affects us here big time. I have unions that are both over a hundred years old. Unfortunately, our city fathers years ago – just like our state fathers – kicked the can down the road and didn’t properly fund the pensions. When we had to raise the property tax levy because the actuary said we needed to fund it to a certain level, the taxpayers complained. But you can’t have these police and firemen work for you and put their lives on the line and not fund their pensions.
    We’ve funded to the requested level all 20 years I’ve been on the council. We’re still catching up. Our police department is about 54 percent funded, and the fire is in the 40s. But we’re supposed to be (90 percent) by 2040.
    IBJ: Are civil servants aging like the rest of the workforce?
    Eckert: It’s wonderful that people are living longer but I have people who retired in the ’70s still drawing a pension.
    The League has worked hard to give the Legislature five different alternatives for fixing pension reform.  Constitutional muster they’ll pass, but will they pass the police and fire lobbyists and will the legislators be bold enough to take some action?
    IBJ: What will be the big legislative mandates that you’ll be worried about?
    Eckert: We’ll certainly have a keen eye as they start to work in the spring on a budget for next year. I understand the state’s trying to balance a very, very difficult budget, but think it’s fair to say that cities over the years have been given a ton of unfunded mandates. We’ve been reduced in some of our revenues. We do not see the grants we used to see. Because the population of the state has dipped and some of the businesses have left we’re not seeing (the same income tax). I know the city of Belleville last fiscal year we were down $550,000 in income tax. The estimate from IML for next year is $96 a person, from about $104. Belleville’s certified population is 44,478. And you times that by the amount of money we’re supposed to get per head, it ends up being big money.
    It’s an important time. The state is …. you know, I love Illinois, but it’s in some tough shape. It’s more important than ever that cities stick together.
    IBJ: Makes it a challenge paying for such things as infrastructure.
    Eckert: You’ve got a host of things there, and it’s a trickle-down effect, too. We haven’t had a federal infrastructure bill in a long time. The state has not been in a position — IDOT’s funds have been drastically cut. The amount of funds cut by the state have greatly affected everything from appearance to road conditions to amount of road projects and overlays. Motor fuel tax, which is allocated on a population formula, is also down. You go to buy salt or asphalt patch, that budget is down as well.
    IBJ: How does the state municipal league in Illinois interact with other similar groups in other states?
    Eckert: I learned that this past year.  I was amazed when my wife and I got the opportunity to go to Charlotte, N.C., for the National League of Cities. There were several thousand people from all over the country. I got a lot more out of the conference than I thought I would. The speakers were great. The interaction. The people I sat and talked to at different events. I have to tell you I was much more impressed with the input from various states and various cities. We all share the same problems and the same concerns. Thank goodness, the League was able to afford for me to go. For some cities, Belleville included, those are the kind of things that sometimes get cut out (of budgets).
    There are a couple of conferences a year. I’m going to go to Washington, D.C., in March, and there’s one that Brad tells me I need to go to in June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

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