CARBONDALE — A coalition of concerned citizens are pointing out what they are calling a “public secret” in Carbondale.
Calling itself the Carbondale Spring, the grassroots social movement believes it’s time for Carbondale to take its fate into its own hands. It’s not enough to wait on elected officials at the state or federal level to come to the rescue, the group's call-to-action states; it’s time for locals to make Carbondale what they want it to be.
Organizer Nick Smaligo said there is a lot of agreement from residents about what shape Carbondale's future should take, but no one is talking about it publicly — that's the secret. Carbondale Spring is looking to change that.
Organized into four pillars, Carbondale Spring outlines a plan to shift Carbondale’s focus from traditional models of energy production and use, as well as food dependence, toward being a more self-sustaining place — changes its proposal says will “help to ‘re-brand’ Carbondale, but in a deep, transformative way, rather than the superficial changes proposed by the logic of marketing.”
It proposes methods to push the city toward food autonomy, more worker-friendly businesses, shifting its thinking on the role of police in the city and toward being energy independent.
Smaligo wrote much of the language in the proposal. He said it’s a summation of many ideas inspired by many local and national thinkers.
Smaligo has lived in the area about 10 years. He came to Carbondale to attend Southern Illinois University and has since become an active community organizer — he has worked closely with the Flyover Social Center, a community meeting place that hosts the Carbondale Tool Library, Washington Street Garden and Girls Rock Carbondale, among other community events.
He said he drafted the plan based on a direction that he believes people want Carbondale to go.
“I wanted something that touched on many different aspects of the crises we are facing,” he said.
The primary crisis the proposal addresses is that of climate change. It references the United Nations report that gives nations less than 15 years to make significant overhauls to their energy consumption and production methods in order to avoid, or at least reduce the impact of, an environmental disaster.
The campaign was launched in the midst of the city’s municipal election, something Smaligo said he thought would provide good “context” for the debate he hoped would follow.
According to its website, Carbondale Spring has had considerable community buy-in. Carbondale Planning and Zoning Commission member Beau Henson, The Carbondale Tool Library, Flyover Social Center, Carbondale Solidarity Network and the Concerned Citizens of Carbondale, among others, have formally endorsed the plan.
The Carbondale Spring makes some big pitches: reduce the police budget by half, institute a renewable energy fund, create a fund to help the city acquire local businesses and convert them into worker-owned cooperatives, and offer municipal support to community gardens and farms.
One thing the Carbondale Spring lays out is a plan for the city to reach "food autonomy."
“In the event of a drastic disruption of the existing food system, due to either climate change or other factors, Carbondale would have to improvise a food system on the fly,” the group’s website, carbondalespring.org, reads. It proposes several significant changes to help ease the potential impact of climate change and other potential disruptions to the city’s food supply.
In the first three years of implementation, the group proposes the city designate 10 vacant lots for farm projects, and hire five farmer-educators to help design and start the farms as well as 20 part-time farmers-in-training.
These items are among several aimed at encouraging and fostering agricultural growth within the city. This proposal has caught the eye of Wayne Weiseman, an internationally recognized permaculture designer and expert. He has publicly endorsed the project.
The plan also calls for a more robust safety net for those experiencing the effects of poverty and mental illness. Smaligo said conflicts that previously might have been settled among neighbors and friends are now solved by calling the police, a group he said are now treated as “all-purpose problem-solvers” and who inherently bring with them the possibility of violence.
“Often, people rely on the police to handle situations that the police are the wrong people for,” the Carbondale Spring website reads. “The police, by the nature of their job, carry with them a threat of violence that is simply inappropriate in many situations.”
The proposal says that social safety net for those experiencing “mental health crises, and other crises that are exacerbated by conditions of poverty, has been shredded.” It calls for the creation of a team of care workers “whose job is to provide or connect people with the resources they need to negotiate difficult times.”
In the first three years, the group proposes that the city set up a full-time non-police emergency number and hire a team of 15 care workers, “whose job it is to help people to meet their nutritional, emotional, and spiritual needs by connecting those suffering to existing resources.” The workers would also design the care infrastructure that doesn’t already exist.
The Carbondale Spring also proposes changes to business growth in the city.
“If the city of Carbondale has an interest in retaining businesses on the Strip, perhaps the standard question of how to attract investors is the wrong question,” the proposal reads.
Of the businesses for sale on the Strip, the group proposes that the city purchase them and transfer control and ownership to the workers. This is a model the group says is already in place in Cleveland, Ohio and is working. It cited Cleveland's Evergreen Cooperatives as a successful example.
Evergreen Cooperatives operate a farm facility, solar company and laundry services built around the worker-owner cooperative model. According to its website, "the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative is working to create living-wage jobs in six low-income neighborhoods, with a median household income below $18,500, in an area known as Greater University Circle."
Carbondale Spring organizers suggest that the city set up a fund to purchase functioning businesses currently up for sale and bring consultants in to design and transition them into worker-owned co-ops.
The plan says profits would be split between the worker-owners and replenishing the fund.
Similarly, the Carbondale Spring proposes the creation of a fund to help spur the switch to renewable energy by both homes and businesses.
There’s a big question looming with all of these suggestions: How does any of this get paid for in a city that runs, at times, on a shoestring budget as it is?
The Carbondale Spring estimates that all of its proposals together will cost about $4 million. In order to cover that cost, the group proposes “right sizing” the city’s police force, which it estimates comprises about two-thirds of all city employees with about 63 officers and 20 support staff.
The group uses an algorithm of calculating and comparing the number of police officers in Carbondale to other, similar communities, by creating an officer-to-citizen ratio.
Based on its math, Carbondale is far and away employing more officers and spending more on policing than other Illinois communities like Edwardsville, DeKalb and Charleston.
“Based on our assumption that the population of Carbondale is 20,000, the city of Carbondale employs 31.5 officers/10,000 people, and 41.66 total employees/10,000 people,” the Carbondale Spring website reads.
These numbers are not including the Southern Illinois University Police Department.
The population estimate is based on data collected from the 2010 U.S. Census, which Carbondale Spring says often takes into account SIU’s enrollment.
However, organizers factored in the drop in enrollment the school has experienced in recent years.
The Carbondale Spring proposal explains that cost savings would not only come from cutting salaries paid to police department employees, but also from eliminating some sizable pension payments the city is obligated to make.
City officials say this is not a fair comparison, as this is not how it calculates its police force. During a public forum last week, Mayor Mike Henry, who is running for re-election, referenced a recent city management review conducted by Ohio-based Novak Consulting.
The final report released to the city on Nov. 11, 2016 calculated police force numbers by call volume and the desired level of “community policing” of the given community.
“Members of the Department responded to 77,032 calls for service in Fiscal Year 2015 and 63,503 in FY2016,” the report says, adding that it serves about a 17-square-mile area. There are also population fluctuations from daytime to night that have to be factored in, as well, according to the report.
Speaking at the March 7 forum, Henry said based on the report, the city was actually a few officers under the recommendation from Novak.
Smaligo said there needed to be a shift in what should be calls for service for police officers. He said the idea of crime “is an attempt to kind of group together all sorts of morally different things,” he said, many of which are rooted in the “effects of poverty.”
The group’s idea is to split these calls up — reducing the number of calls to only those that require responders with police officers' specific training.
A quiet nod, a public shout-out
The movement has gained traction, though not always by name. During a community forum last month for the five candidates running for City Council, two of those running referenced research put forward by the Carbondale Spring during their debate about how to cut costs for the city — namely by examining the number of police officers. No one cited Carbondale Spring as a source, but the ideas sounded straight out of the proposal.
A week later, during a mayoral candidate forum, Nathan Colombo mentioned the group by name. In a discussion about a perceived imbalance to police patrols, Colombo invoked Carbondale Spring’s call for a social safety net of care workers who operate separately from police and are there to deescalate certain situations and help those in need find help as opposed to prison.
Colombo described this as solving problems instead of jailing them.
Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams declined comment on the Carbondale Spring's proposals.
"We would prefer not to comment on a plan we haven't fully analyzed," he told The Southern Tuesday.
While some validation from current and potential city leaders is nice and certainly could be helpful, Smaligo said city government can’t be relied on solely to make the group’s proposals a reality.
“It’s a kind of machine to turn interesting ideas in boring ones,” Smaligo said of city government.
“We need a movement of people who are insisting on a different direction for the town.”
Smaligo said since the group made its ideas public this year, he’s been overwhelmed by the interest and support.
“I’ve been blown away by the amount of resonance this has had,” Smaligo told The Southern.
He said he has tried his best to pose the ideas outside the conventional language of two-party politics. He said he is trying to capitalize on the “tremendous amount of agreement in this town” on the broad goals of Carbondale Spring.
Smaligo said the black-and-white nature of U.S. politics presents a unique obstacle.
“The challenge it presents is … we are asking people to communicate with each other outside of the boxes (of politics),” Smaligo said.
He said he and the group believe people will have to come together, regardless of who wins April’s election, and do the leg work to bring concrete requests to city officials.
This way the dream won’t die in committee, Smaligo said.