Spring looks back on tenure's successes, missed opportunities

Quincy Mayor John Spring tosses his jacket toward a chair after arriving at his office in City Hall last week. The personal items and mementos he had displayed in the office are gone as Spring ends his tenure as mayor. (H-W/Steve Bohnstedt))
Posted: May. 4, 2013 7:10 pm Updated: May. 19, 2013 1:15 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

During his last few days as mayor of Quincy, John Spring experienced lots of emotions and his thoughts kept settling on a single word: pride.

Spring expressed pride in the city, pride in his eight-year tenure as mayor and pride in the way he ran what was ultimately an unsuccessful campaign for re-election.

"As of today, there's $1.3 million in reserves," Spring said of the city's finances. "We presently have saved $4.4 million with our early retirement initiative, which will come to a close next year, and I'm sure it will exceed the $5.2 million we projected."

Those numbers represent the city government's finances after what Spring calls "the worst recession since the Great Depression."

City records indicate there were 358 city employees when Spring took office in 2005. The head count was down to 348 by the end of his first term. In 2009, the year Spring began his second term, the City Council approved an early retirement plan that has helped the city eliminate 36 more positions. The city now has 312 employees.

In Spring's opinion, those voluntary job cuts have not eroded city services, but they've made all the difference in maintaining the city's financial health.

"We were proactive in bringing down the head count, and that's the difference between Quincy and a lot of other cities," Spring said.

During his work on the Illinois Municipal Board,Spring has heard horror stories from other Illinois mayors who have had to cut public safety jobs and even borrowed money to make payroll. City finances statewide have taken a hit as the state has reduced the amount of money coming back to cities -- reduced payments that are months behind in coming.

Spring sees the city's private sector also doing well.

"I'm really proud of the core area. We see so much vibrant activity in the Historic Quincy Business District," Spring said.

National retailers have located along the Broadway Corridor during Spring's tenure, as well. Manufacturers and major employers have been hiring, and most have built their staffs back to pre-recession levels, Spring said.


Missed opportunities

Sitting in the office he has occupied for eight years, Spring pauses momentarily when he thinks of what he would do differently if he had one "do-over." He says can't choose just one thing.

He wishes he had been more aggressive in seeking federal grants for the Mid-America Port or working to persuade the Quincy City Council to at least study an intermodal transportation hub.

The Mid-America Port has the potential to boost manufacturing and shipping in the South Quincy Drainage District. The project has been up for federal funding several times but has been passed over in several rounds of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"I'm disappointed we don't have a port, 16 years after it was formed and after Quincy was selected as the ideal site for the physical port," Spring said.

The intermodal transportation hub was a different kind of disappointment.

Spring said $13 million was once available for creation of a Quincy transportation hub. Amtrak, which has a depot in an industrial area at 30th and Wismann Lane, was willing to work with the city to relocate the depot into the central business district. City officials wanted to see Quincy Transit Lines buses use the same site. Private sector cab companies also could have used the hub or operate stands there. Quincy Trailways bus service also could have taken advantage of the transportation hub as a depot.

"We had $6 million from the Illinois capital plan and $7 million committed from the feds," Spring said.

But the City Council voted not to do a $35,000 study of the project, halting any more work on it.

"They thought we had a secret plan for the transportation hub, and they killed it," Spring said.

That project came to mind recently when Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited the dedication of a transportation hub in Macomb.


Hydroelectric effort

In 2006, the city began pursuing permits to allow operation of hydroelectric power plants Lock and Dam 21 at Quincy, as well as dams at Canton, Clarksville and Winfield, Mo.

What Spring hoped would be a major victory for Quincy derailed in February 2011 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission dismissed the city's permit and licensing application.

The city had issued $6.6 million in bonds and was seeking a public-private effort that bring in a private firm and private dollars to build and operate the Quincy power generation facility. FERC ruled that the city violated federal rules by working with a private entity that used its municipal preference. The agency considered that an unfair advantage in developing hydro.

"If you look at the FERC ruling, you see the city did nothing wrong. We were given some bad advice," Spring said. "We should have gone after the people who gave us bad advice."

Quincy aldermen, however, chose not to seek a settlement that could have paid down the city's costs.

Spring said the city had spent about $3 million on the hydroelectric effort and had nearly $3 million left unspent. But when that money was used to repay the bonds, it led to erroneous charges that the city "lost" $5.5 million.

The hydroelectric issue was a persistent topic during the April 9 election. What Spring hoped would be a signature event for his administration became a black mark against him with many voters.

"I thought hydro was a great example of something to move the city forward," he said.


Political problems

Spring shrugs when asked whether his efforts were blocked because of politics when Republicans gained a 10-4 majority four years ago.

"For a vote or two, that group tried to flex their muscles ..." Spring said letting the sentence trail off.

The vote not to seek damages from three parties that gave bad advice to the city on hydroelectric was a bad decision, Spring said, and the vote against the transportation hub belonged in that same category.

He said a couple of newer council members have never wanted to sit down and discuss issues. Some are in violation of state law, he said, because they refuse to get a briefing on the Open Meetings Act, which would require a meeting with the mayor.

In most respects, Spring feels the worst examples of partisanship come up at elections and fade when the elections are past. He has floated the idea that Quincy hold nonpartisan elections, but that idea never has been very popular.

People want to identify their candidates' political leanings. And they want a chance to be heard.

"We live in an area where there's a great dislike for the president and a great dislike for Congress. People are mad at the governor and the General Assembly, and they can't just walk into Congress or into the state capital and voice their concerns," Spring said. "But they can tell the council or tell the mayor what they think.

"Dick Durbin once said, ‘Being mayor is the hardest job in the world because there's nowhere to hide.' "


What's next?

Spring is leaving his options open after he leaves office Monday.

In an interview on WGEM's "News Talk Live, he was asked what he plans to do next. Spring replied: "Whatever I want."

Late last week, he said he might "kick back and play more golf;" hunt more often; travel with his wife, Karen; and visit family more often.

Most of all, Spring said he'll be enjoying the quality of life in Quincy, which he describes as an economic hub, a regional center for health care and an educational center.

"Eventually I'm sure I'll do something for the community and young people in particular. People sometimes forget I started out as a teacher," Spring said.