Johnston City mayor discusses digging city out of financial hole, planned improvements
When Johnston City's Jim Mitchell took over as mayor six years ago, the city’s outlook was bleak.
“We were almost $1 million in the red,” he told the Southeast Illinois News. “That’s pretty big for a city our size.”
The population of Johnston City is around 3,600-3,700 people, according to Mitchell.
Mitchell’s only campaign promise at the time was that he would get the city’s finances back in order. The city’s attorney estimated it would take at least seven years to fulfill his promise, yet it took Mitchell two-and-a-half years to get the city in the black.
But it wasn’t easy.
“We were in such bad shape the bank came in nine days after they made me mayor and they said, ‘We’re here to foreclose,’” Mitchell said.
The city owed over $400,000 that had been taken as a tax anticipation loan, and the city had to give up all the money it had.
“At that point, our accounts went to zero, and that’s when we started rebuilding,” Mitchell said. “It was very difficult, but being of a conservative type of bent, I shut down the street department for a whole year.”
Another department took care of emergency work for free and the city changed the fire department from full-time to volunteer, which Mitchell said was appropriate for its size.
The city was in such bad shape it couldn’t even purchase a used police car.
“I had to sign the note personally because the city didn’t have the money,” he said. “The first three months, checks that I got as the mayor I turned over to the library so I could keep the library open.”
However, not everyone was happy with the choices Mitchell was making.
“I laid off one guy in the street department,” Mitchell said. “He called me up one night and said, ‘What the hell is going on? I’m sitting home and the library is still open!’ … I had to get rid of some people because they were bleeding us to death. You make a certain amount of enemies, but at the same time we were rebuilding our town back to a healthy financial state.”
Six years later, the city has new cars in its police department and plans to buy two cars every two years and rotate out the older ones.
The city has managed to get 24 houses demolished during that time, as well.
“We demolished some and got the owners to demolish some,” Mitchell said. “So that’s about four a year for six years, and that makes a big difference.”
Mitchell is also very proud of the fact that the city recently began offering health insurance to city employees.
“As of Jan. 1, we now offer health insurance to all of our employees,” he said. “They hadn’t had health insurance in this town for 35 years. So it’s a big deal (especially since) everybody else is trying to get out of paying health insurance.”
While the city has made a lot of progress, Mitchell said there is still room for improvement.
“Now we’re trying to attract more businesses here,” he said.
A business owner based in Kentucky recently called Mitchell to ask about some office space for his insurance company, stating that he was drawn to Johnston City because of its central location.
“We’ve got the best location than anybody (in Illinois): we’ve got about 40,000 vehicles a day by our exit out here,” he said.
Mitchell, who is 72, has lived in Johnston City for almost his entire life.
“I was born here; still here; (when) it’s your home, it’s where you’ve been all your life, you’ve got to make sure the town is taken care of,” he said. “I tell people that we’ll probably always be a small town, but we can be the nicest little town in southern Illinois, and I think we’ve done that.”
Mitchell served in the U.S. Army for two years and later graduated from Southern Illinois University with a degree in vocational education.
He worked as a highway maintainer with the Illinois Department of Transportation for a little over 20 years before retiring after suffering a heart attack in 2001, which made it difficult to be out on the roads. He works as an insurance salesman and runs business out of an insurance office in the city.
Prior to being mayor, Mitchell served on the City Council on and off since 1980.
Michael Murray is challenging Mitchell for city mayor this spring.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Mitchell said. “I keep telling people that he’s got his ideas and I’ve got mine. I think my record will stand on its own.”