STATE OF THE CITY 2021
January 26, 2021 -- Mayor Rotering delivered the 2021 State of the City address at the January 25, 2021 City Council meeting. Video of the meeting is now available.
Thank you for the opportunity to present the 2021 State of the City of Highland Park. I am delivering this update in a time where we’ve just witnessed the historic inauguration of our 46th President of the United States and the peaceful transfer of power, recognized and honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, continue to reflect upon the recent events in the nation’s Capitol, and experience the ongoing devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic on the nation and around the world.
Things have not been easy. The sacrifices made by each and every one of us have been enormous. Most importantly, tonight, I want to send a message of deep gratitude to each of you - for your patience, resiliency, support, and care for each other. You are the heart of Highland Park.
I’d like to recognize my City Council members – Tony Blumberg, Michelle Holleman, Dan Kaufman, Alyssa Knobel, Adam Stolberg, and Kim Stone. We are a team. As elected officials, there is no absolute right or wrong – just, at times, very hard choices and difficult decisions. The burden of responsibility is always heavy, and even moreso during a pandemic.
Thank you to our dedicated staff. City Manager Ghida Neukirch and the senior staff – we are grateful for your leadership. While we have been staying safe in our homes, our dedicated employees have kept our city operating. Our first responders put their health and their families’ health at risk to keep us safe. We thank them for their continued bravery and compassion.
There is no denying that the pandemic created a perfect storm. It has affected each and every one of us. It has upended our daily routines, social interactions, work habits, and even our sense of time and place. Many of us have experienced severe personal economic challenges and grief due to the loss of loved ones. We lost the ability to visit our favorite restaurants and businesses and in turn, they have taken a beating, forcing many to close or adapt to a new way of doing business.
While it is easy to get discouraged, we should instead be inspired as we reflect on the heroism of our essential workers, the spirit of togetherness that we are experiencing in the face of adversity, and our strength as we continue to persevere.
While the pandemic may have started as a public healthcare crisis, it has also become a governance and financial crisis. Strong, accessible, and responsible local governance has been paramount. While no one expected the major events that we experienced in 2020, we were able to rely on our carefully crafted core priorities to guide us. As a City, with your input, we have been strategic in developing those priorities - public safety, fiscal stability, infrastructure investment and community vibrancy. These have been our pillars for the past ten years and while every single one has been challenged by this pandemic, we have been nimble, resilient and effective in meeting our challenges because of them.
Every level of government continues to experience severe economic impacts related to the pandemic and the City of Highland Park has not been immune. Costs of pandemic-related City operations rose quickly and City revenues have been stretched beyond anything anyone could have anticipated, causing a potential shortfall of millions of dollars. To address challenges in the short-term, many infrastructure and other projects were put on hold, events and programming were cancelled, portions of our staff were furloughed, and our work-force was diminished by 10% through attrition and staff reductions. While careful prior planning provided strong reserves upon which we could draw this year, we continue to face fiscal challenges throughout the pandemic and possibly beyond. I am proud to say that despite these external forces, we recently approved our tenth balanced operating budget in a row, our financial house remains in order, and City operations continue almost seamlessly.
We know that we cannot wait for the pandemic to end to start re-setting, re-imagining, and re-building. As we continue to work closely with the Lake County Health Department and the Illinois Department of Public Health to increase the vaccine’s rollout, we recognize that the length and intensity of the pandemic has taken a toll on our local economy. With this in mind, the City swiftly created numerous initiatives focused on supporting our restaurants and small businesses as they faced and continue to experience pandemic-related challenges. We reduced or eliminated fees, created grants for mitigating pandemic-related costs, rolled back restrictions and permitting requirements, and joined in marketing efforts to showcase our valued businesses. We are fluid in our approach and work regularly with our businesses to provide them support. On their behalf, all of us at the City continue to ask, when possible, that you patronize our local businesses. Our community has depended on them throughout the years and they need us now more than ever.
We continue to make strategic changes to our zoning, particularly in and around our downtown, resulting in transit-oriented, market-driven housing development that includes affordable units, is sensitive to the environment, and encourages longtime residents to easily downsize, allowing new neighbors to move here. As a result, over time, more people will be able to shop, dine and visit our downtown, helping to ease resident property tax burdens through the generation of increased sales tax revenue. This new housing also enables our seniors to age in place, continuing a Highland Park tradition of multiple generations of families in our hometown.
In the coming year, some priority projects include the continued planning to replace the obsolete Ravinia fire station, rebuilding a crumbling Clavey Road, a vital east-west artery in south Highland Park, revisiting our economic strategic plan, continuing to shine a spotlight on the need for regional flood mitigation efforts, short- and long-term planning to revitalize the Crossroads shopping district, and most of all – we look forward to coming together again as a community in person.
Despite fiscal obstacles and unclear timelines, it is necessary that we continue to plan, continue to progress to the extent feasible. As American author Alan Lakein, best known for his quotes about time management and planning once said, “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”
We do not do our work alone. Collaboration and synergies benefit the public and improve efficiencies. We continue to work closely with our sister governments, not-for-profit and other community partners, and area clergy. Thank you to all of our partners who work with us throughout the year. These collaborative relationships result in a broad range of initiatives that benefit our community’s day-to-day life, help us coordinate during times like these and plan for the future. Our work together exemplifies representative government at its best. This year, we were tested, and I am proud that although we each have separate functions, we came together to promote a culture of inclusivity, and to support critical human and social services for our neighbors in need.
Your input is the most vital. Your priorities are our priorities. In the coming months, we will virtually hold our annual neighborhood meetings in partnership with our sister governments. We will apply our listening and learning to the development of our annual budget – our most important policy statement. With fiscal prudence as our directive, we will plan for the future with an eye on our community’s short- and long-term needs and hopes, challenges and opportunities.
At the end of the day, every person, every family, deserves to be safe and healthy in their home, on their street, in their neighborhood, at their place of work, and they deserve equal access to opportunity. None of us can predict what may come next, but we will continue to build and learn from the past as we work together to create a bright future.
Again, to each of you - our community - thank you.