Rockford City Council wagers long shot on bid for casino

Mayor Larry Morrissey—who challenged former Mayor Doug Scott for his support of expanded gaming—supports council either way on casino vote

Rockford City Council voted 10-3 May 29 to ask the Illinois Legislature for a seat at the table to be dealt one of four expanded gaming licenses.

Rockford is not on the list to be considered, but aldermen think the stakes are too high not to declare formal interest.

Aldermen Doug Mark (R-3) and Carl Wasco (D-4) co-sponsored a resolution to present a unified front for the city after Rockford was accused by state Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) of sending mixed signals regarding its desire for or against a casino.

Hendon reported having been approached by Rockford leaders on both sides of the issue, but would not say with whom he’d spoken.

If passed, Senate Bill 11 would create the Depressed Communities Economic Development Fund, which would distribute gaming funds to 89 Illinois ZIP codes deemed to be in distress. Four of those ZIP codes—61101, 61102, 61103 and 61104—are in Rockford.

During discussion, Ald. Frank Beach (R-10) noted he’d just learned of the resolution that morning, and asked what the hurry was.

City Legal Director Patrick Hayes explained the General Assembly is only scheduled to be in session through May 31.

“If we don’t act tonight, then there hasn’t been the clear articulation to the Legislature as to whether we’d prefer to be involved in this legislation or not,” Hayes said.

Hayes added, “Delaying this would, perhaps just by virtue of the delay alone, prevent us from being included in legislation.”

With signs reading “CasiNO!” waving in the gallery behind him, Beach expressed disappointment with Mayor Larry Morrissey (I), who’d left the meeting before the matter came up for discussion.

“Our mayor should have made it perfectly clear to this community his convictions regarding this issue, regardless of what the aldermen decide to do,” Beach said. “The headline, or mission statement, that’s been around this chamber for the last two years has been called ‘Excellence for everyone, everywhere.’ Frankly, I’m not convinced, personally, that this would be the right direction for our community, as tempting as it might seem.”

While campaigning against former Rockford Mayor Doug Scott (D) in the last mayoral election, Morrissey attacked Scott’s plan for expanded gaming in Rockford. Now, however, Morrissey has indicated he’ll support the council’s decision either way.

Beach said he feels expanded gaming in Rockford would change the face of the city permanently, and that more creative ways can be found for generating city revenues.

Ald. Lenny Jacobson (D-6) responded, “People from this community do enjoy those types of things, and it’s their own choice.”

Jacobson indicated the same concerns had been expressed before off-track betting was allowed to open for business in Rockford—something he says has been a benefit in funding city programs.

“There are a lot of positive things, so let’s not be so quick to slam the door,” Jacobson argued.

Favoring the resolution, Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) offered, “My position is we have a job to do, and our job is to keep taxes down and supply services.” Thompson-Kelly and Ald. Victory Bell (D-5) said gambling is just one way to help the city perform those duties.

While indicating his respect for those who oppose gaming, Bell urged, “It is extremely important for this City Council to go on-record supporting it, because they [Springfield delegation from Rockford] believe that they [General Assembly] want to hear from the City of Rockford.”

Bell has supported previous efforts to bring gaming to Rockford, and said he agrees the city needs to present a unified front to the state.

Explaining the importance of the resolution, Ald. Wasco warned: “If we don’t get this passed tonight and show our resolve to get this in front of the Senate, then another opportunity passes by Rockford.”

Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) simply stated, “I don’t support a casino coming here.” Moments later, she said she would get behind the idea if there were a 100 percent guarantee the revenues would go to the four depressed ZIP codes—one of which is in her ward. McNeely moved to amend the resolution to that end.

Responding to McNeely, Hayes explained funds would be distributed to the 89 depressed ZIP codes statewide, regardless of whether there were a casino in Rockford.

Ald. Dan Conness (D-14), who’d supported previous attempts to bring gaming to Rockford, argued it would be unfair to the rest of the city if 100 percent of the revenues went to only four ZIP codes.

Thompson-Kelly and Wasco stressed the most important thing is to be considered by the Senate, and that there’d be time to debate money later.

Ald. Jeff Holt (D-11) argued if Beloit, Wis., is successful in its bid for a casino, money from Rockford would be spent across the border, and our city would reap no benefits.

McNeely cast the sole vote in favor of her proposed amendment, and the original resolution was approved. Aldermen Joe Sosnowski (R-1), Beach and McNeely voted against the resolution.

In other Rockford City Council news:

John Weaver spoke for the second straight week during public participation. “Some of this body have been less than stellar in their support of activities which attempt to improve our neighborhoods,” he said. Weaver thanked Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) for participating in a march against street crime May 22, but said: “This march was not a small group of followers in one neighborhood. It was a gathering of people from across this city who understood the message. They got it. Did you get it?” For information about future marches, call (815) 968-2205.

Aldermen passed an ordinance granting a 3 percent wage increase for non-union city employees. The ordinance also approves merit pay increases of up to 4 percent. The increases are retroactive to the start of 2007. Ald. Linda McNeely (D-13) voted “no.”

Mayor Morrissey proclaimed June 5 Hunger Awareness Day in Rockford, and urged citizens and businesses to support the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

The mayor proclaimed the month of May to be Rockford IceHogs Colonial Cup Championship Month in Rockford in recognition of the United Hockey League (UHL) team’s outstanding eighth season. Next season, a new version of the IceHogs will move into the American Hockey League (AHL) as a Chicago Blackhawks affiliate in a newly-renovated MetroCentre.

A committee report recommending a $15,000 contract be awarded to Naperville-based Broadband Development Group for network/video management was approved. McNeely voted “no.”

Aldermen also approved a committee report recommending the award of up to $15,000 to Strand Associates, Inc., for engineering services related to the Water System Rehabilitation Project.

Aldermen approved a report recommending McMahon Associates, Inc., of Machesney Park, be awarded up to $220,000 for work associated with the Water System Rehabilitation Project.

The Council also passed a report recommending approval of up to $135,000 to Crawford, Murphy & Tilly, Inc., of Rockford, for engineering of the Airport Area Watermain Project.

Ald. Pat Curran (R-2) was absent.

from the May 30-June 5, 2007, issue

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