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Mattoon council candidates agree on police staffing, disagree on ambulance service – Journal Gazette and Times-Courier

Mattoon council candidates agree on police staffing, disagree on ambulance service – Journal Gazette and Times-Courier

Mattoon council candidates agree on police staffing, disagree on ambulance service 1 of 2 Mattoon City Council candidate Trent Seiler speaks during Police Benevolent & Protective Association No. 35’s forum Wednesday night at Burgess-Osborne Memorial Auditorium. Pictured, from the left, in the background are council candidates Dave Cox, Dustin Hay, Jennifer White and David Phipps. Mattoon

Mattoon council candidates agree on police staffing, disagree on ambulance service

Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles about Police Benevolent & Protective Association No. 35’s forums for Mattoon City Council and mayor candidates. The first article focused on the mayor candidates and this second one is focused on the council.

MATTOON — City Council candidates expressed support Wednesday and Thursday nights for maintaining current police staffing levels, but differed on whether the city should reinstate Mattoon Fire Department’s ambulance service.

The candidates often talked about these issues within the context of the city’s budget troubles and of revenue generating economic development ideas during forums hosted by Police Benevolent & Protective Association No. 35 at Burgess-Osborne Auditorium.

Candidates Dave Cox, Dustin Hay, David Phipps, Trent Seiler and Jennifer White spoke Wednesday, following the mayoral forum that night. Candidates Jim Closson, Sandra Graven, Scott Harris, Steve Ratliff and Rob Scheffer spoke Thursday. Candidates George “Butch” Gullion and Zachary Haifley did not attend. The election is April 6.

After candidate introductions, the police union asked if they would commit to maintaining the current staffing level of at least 38 officers as the city faces rising crime rates. The candidates expressed support for this level or increasing it if funding is available.

Seiler, whose 10 years in law enforcement includes currently serving part time with Lake Land College Police Department, said he has experience dealing with limited manpower and would like to get more resources to Mattoon’s department if possible.

Closson, who served as the city’s emergency services and disaster agency director in past years, said he would honor a request from incoming police Chief Sam Gaines for additional manpower if elected.

“I am going to try to find everything in the budget possible to make that work for the police department,” Closson said.

Incumbent council member Dave Cox, who works in auto sales, said fire departments are typically funded at 70% of the level of police, but Mattoon Fire Department is funded at 90%. He said next year’s budget projects $6.8 million for police and $6 million for fire. He said shifting more funding to the police would help, but the city is limited by its current expired contract with the firefighters’ union.

“We have to support the police and get them the resources they need to do their jobs,” Cox said.

Incumbent council member Sandra Graven said fire department staffing should be kept at a lower level following the city’s elimination of its ambulance service in 2018. She added that Mitchell-Jerdan Ambulance Service, which is the city’s sole coverage provider, has been meeting response time requirements on 98% of calls.

Hay, who owns and operates a tile and hardwood flooring business, said the city made a mistake in eliminating the ambulance service while still having a contract in place that calls for having 30 firefighters. While waiting for the contract-related court proceedings to conclude, Hay said he is interested in seeing firefighters increase their support role on ambulance calls.

Ratliff, who works in the seed corn industry, said he does not want to cut the budgets of any department and believes that the ambulance service could help offset the costs of operating the fire department. He said this issue has caused too much division within the city and that its departments need to work as a team.

Regarding economic development, Scheffer said he has seen cannabis dispensaries draw large numbers of customers in other communities while on the road with his Scheff’s Office Supplies business. He said the city should use its existing cannabis sales ordinance to draw a dispensary to Mattoon. He said the city could also help the economy by making purchases locally whenever possible instead of online.

“Personally, I believe hiring an economic development director is an absolute must,” said Harris, who works at Anixter. He said volunteers are a good resource for development efforts, but the city needs someone working full time on this and the funding for this post would be an investment on the future.

White, owner of Bombshell salon, said the city needs to step up its marketing to potential visitors in preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic easing. Mattoon has drawn visitors by hosting Bagelfest and youth sporting events, and by its proximity to Eastern Illinois University, Abraham Lincoln sites and Lake Shelbyville.

Phipps, who is an investment adviser, said Mattoon’s economic development efforts need to be multifaceted, including working with the new Elevate entrepreneur development center and encouraging the development of new residential neighborhoods. He said there are great candidates running for council who are all committed to working hard for Mattoon’s success. 

“Leadership is going to be key,” Phipps said “It’s about getting the stakeholders in the room and trying to knock something out that is in the best interests of the community.”

Photos: Remember these? A look back at Mattoon businesses through the years

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