Departing administrator talks about reasons for leaving, village government

RANTOUL — The search will begin again for a village administrator to serve Rantoul.

Six months after Rick Snider agreed to leave his post as Champaign County administrator to assume the administrator role in Rantoul, the village will start the search process for a replacement. Snider announced last week he would leave the position in late July. He cited personal reasons.

Mayor Chuck Smith said Snider, who was required under contract to reside in Rantoul, sold his home in Mahomet and began leasing a home in Rantoul.

“This has been an ongoing concern for Rick, I would say for the last 35-45 days, that he would be able to establish a permanent residence here,” Smith said. “He did move to Rantoul to be in compliance with the contract.”

Smith said he had known for a couple of weeks that Snider was considering resigning,  and Smith said he had hoped it wouldn’t come to Snider’s leaving, but ultimately Snider made the decision.

“Needless to say I’m disappointed ... that this situation has come down the way it has,” Smith said.

A question-and-answer session with Snider follows:

How long have you been considering making the change?

Although the unhappiness of being separated from family has been long-standing, the actual decision to make a change happened fairly quickly within the last couple weeks. In consideration of a number of factors, we decided that making North Carolina our permanent home was the most sensible choice. Tim only needs about seven more years to retire from federal service while I still need another eight just to vest in the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

Cost of living in NC is significantly less, too, in that housing prices are about 30 percent less for a comparable home in here than in Champaign County, and property taxes are over 80 percent less. The last tax bill I paid in Mahomet was approaching $11,000; for a marginally smaller home in NC, my taxes will be about $1,700 annually.

Frankly, I won’t miss Illinois winters very much, either. Seventy degrees at the beach in January sounds a lot better than 7 degrees and flurries. I will be sad that I will not be able to see very often all of the friends I have made here nor attend Illinois football and basketball games, but there are always tradeoffs and sacrifices in any decision.

Do you have a new job lined up?

No. I plan to take a sabbatical as I haven’t had a serious break in about eight years, which included running a goat dairy and attending graduate school, all while working a full-time job. I went straight from that situation to becoming Champaign County administrator and landing in the middle of the (Champaign County) nursing home crisis, so it’s been a prolonged period of intense work.

I want to relax and spend time with my family, reflect and address some health issues before jumping into the next adventure. I’m not sure if I’ll stay in public administration or perhaps go back into the consulting world so I need to contemplate my options.

Do you want to make any comment on the Rantoul job from your six months here?

First, I greatly appreciate the hard work of staff during my tenure and know that they will continue to move Rantoul forward long after my departure. So many of our folks, from the department heads through our front-line staff, are incredibly dedicated to public service. Our comptroller, Pat Chamberlin, is one of the best municipal finance professionals with whom I’ve ever worked and is assisted by her very competent lieutenant, Angie Schultz.

As the head of public works, Greg Hazel has many key village functions under his jurisdiction, and I think his capabilities are under-appreciated. You could not ask for a more able or visionary police chief than Tony Brown. I could fill this page with many more names but suffice it to say that the village is well served in most departments by a corps of knowledgeable, passionate employees.

Do you have any recommendations for changes in the village government side of things?

The first priority is that village government must become more open to change itself. Too often we hear the refrain “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” without considering if we are utilizing the right or best way to accomplish a task, or if the task should be done at all.

I recently heard an employee reference “high-performing organizations,” a program that the village launched last year to increase employee involvement in decision-making, and couple that to expending more money on hiring staff. That’s not what HPO is about; it is about unleashing employee creativity and flexibility to achieve superior results.

We need to identify the strategic priorities for public services and then place a strong focus on the best way to deliver those in an effective and efficient manner with the resources available to us. In my experience, simply throwing money at a problem seldom results in a better outcome.

One functional area we’ve already identified as bearing further scrutiny is the Recreation Department. Recreation contributes greatly to quality of life in our town; however, that doesn’t excuse it from performing efficiently and avoid straying into tasks that are inappropriate for the function. For example, there are about 40,000 local governments in the U.S., yet I can’t think of a single one that has its vehicle maintenance operation as part of recreation. It almost always falls under public works, facilities or general services.

That anomaly may explain in part the excessive village expenditures on this area as well as the lack of tools, tracking systems and educational requirements. If we truly desire better outcomes, we need to consider alternatives that may be “outside the box” to address shortfalls and to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. Failing to take a serious interest in this issue, is in my opinion, an abdication of responsibilities.

What do you see as the future for Rantoul? What changes need to be made, and in what condition would you say the village’s finances are in?

There needs to be a recognition that Rantoul is not an isolated outpost, which it may have been during the Chanute days, but an important player in the regional economy. The University of Illinois has been the economic engine of Champaign County for 150 years, and it will be so for another 150 years from now assuming there’s still a state of Illinois at that time.

It behooves us to reach out and form partnerships with the university by leveraging the assets we have, including land and utility infrastructure. I believe there is a rich stream of opportunities available to us of which we must take advantage. A corollary to this is that people outside of Rantoul need to understand the importance of our village in their futures.

Economic underperformance by Rantoul hurts everyone in Champaign County with fewer jobs and lower tax revenues. That is why it is essential for all of our neighboring communities to work together as a region to bring about economic development that benefits all.

In the near-term, I think we must generate a strategy that can capture “low-hanging fruit” to drive job creation and increase revenues flowing into the local economy.

There are retail businesses we can attract that won’t cannibalize existing firms. For example, a full-service truck stop would generate multiple sources of village revenue, provide needed services for truck traffic at the industrial park,  and increase the number of visitors coming off of Interstate 57.

The Holiday Inn Express has been very successful, and studies show that we could support a second property here. By fostering a critical mass of businesses on the west side, we can establish Rantoul as a major point of interest for people living in or visiting northern Champaign County and the wider market area. Building a strong foundation here also releases additional funds through our TIF districts to be used on necessary infrastucture to foster the next round of development.

Village finances have both strengths and weaknesses. We have a fairly robust general fund reserve approaching the 40 percent range. However, revenue growth is greatly constrained by the declining equalized assessed values of property as well as flat to declining performance of sales taxes. We are fortunate to operate our own utilities, but we must avoid the temptation to raid the enterprise funds lest it place upward pressure on utility rates.

Of greater concern is that surviving the Great Recession has meant the village has had limited expenditures for capital equipment and facilities. We have an aging vehicle fleet, and our enterprise resource planning software that runs personnel, finances and utility billing for the village is all mainframe-based. These are multi-million dollar long-term investments that must be planned for and appropriated over time as we simply cannot provide funding all in one fell swoop.

The village needs to engage in a long-term planning process to include a review of asset life of facilities and vehicles and develop a capital asset replacement plan and five-year financial plan to achieve sustainability.

At last night’s meeting you said that you had fielded inquiries from, it sounded like, Intersect Illinois to possibly bring jobs to town. Can you tell me any more about that?

We frequently get inquiries through the state for potential commercial projects. Some are small while others can have values of $1 billion or more. Within the last couple weeks, we’ve responded to two requests for information. One involved an engineering and research organization that needs access to land with proximity to a major research university; the other involved a food processor that needed significant utility infrastructure. These are both organizations that can make use of our assets and also provide high-quality employment and investment for Rantoul.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com

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