Full Name: Owen Harrell
What office are you seeking? Whiteside County Board District 1
What offices, if any, have you previously held? Whiteside County Board District 1, Blackhawk Hills Regional Council Board of Directors
Occupation: IT Director at Whiteside Area Career Center
Education: I currently hold over 32 Engineering Certifications including Microsoft Certified System Engineer, Microtik Router OS, Certified Sonicwall Security Administrator, along with numerous other Wireless Engineering Certifications.
Campaign Website: None
One of the biggest local issues curtailing economic development and growth is available affordable housing. The 2022 Census showed Lee and Whiteside both with more than 90% occupancy of existing residences. What is the role of the county to ensure there is available housing as it works to attract new businesses to the region?
Housing is an issue in Whiteside County. Sterling, alone, could use an additional 100 homes currently. Most local landlords are averaging a six month or longer waitlist for their properties. It is difficult for businesses to start up or grow if housing is not available for the employees they expect to bring in. It is the role of the county to keep taxes down as well as to look for all programs that would encourage and benefit a contractor to build new homes in our area.
Many villages and municipalities in Lee and Whiteside have their own ambulance services, which are often strapped for cash to maintain operations. In addition, there are critical shortages of qualified EMTs and firefighters. What role should county government play in resolving these associated problems?
Whiteside County has a current partnership with CGH to provide ambulance services. As a member of the Whiteside County Board, I feel we should play an important role in promoting these jobs to our local youth. I have personally worked with the Special Service Area 1 (the ambulance service for Sterling and the surrounding areas) to start a training program for local high school students through the Whiteside Area Career Center. While this training will not result in EMT certification, it is an introduction to this field and a way to promote interest. This program has now officially started and will hopefully result in the generation of more applicants in the EMT field.
Is it time to encourage privatizing ambulance services, consolidate services and provide them at county level, or augment state funding with county funds to existing units?
Whiteside County is already involved in this. Northern Illinois counties are woefully behind when it comes to broadband and modern communications. What role does the county government have in equipping the region to meet the communication needs of the future?
I have been involved with Whiteside County and the state to look at getting Fiber to areas of the county that are presently underserved. Whiteside County was one of only six counties/towns selected to work directly with the state to design a plan to get fiber throughout the county. We are currently working on the details of this plan.
Northern Illinois is seen as having a great deal of potential in developing/expanding green energy in the form of solar and wind. How can the county government play a role in expanding this? At the same time, growers and property owners often express the need to preserve land for crops. Is there a balance to be struck? What are possible solutions?
Whiteside County is currently in the process of looking into the possibility of allowing a solar farm to be built on top of the already-used, 80 acres of the County Landfill. This property is not currently suitable for farming or housing. This would provide both income to the county and further utilize the property.
Should counties do more to expand access to county government?
Whiteside County invites all people to attend our meetings. If you can not attend in person, we offer Zoom attendance.
Should video of committees and board meetings be continued/expanded?
Whiteside currently offers Zoom for all of the meetings. We encourage everyone along with the media to attend either in person or by Zoom. At this time, I do not see Zoom being dropped anytime in the near future.
Should the county website be updated?
The Whiteside Web Site is updated. I am sure if someone would follow every link, there is something that was missed. But rest assured, it was missed by mistake. All meeting dates are available on the Web Site, along with many other departments and contact information.
Should board members be required to have email connections?
Yes I believe that all Whiteside County Board Members should have an email listed for the public to contact them.
What technology upgrades and resource allocation is required to make it happen?
There is nothing needed. The County does have an Email Server that could be used or members could use a personal email address.
What challenges is the region facing in terms of attracting business and tourism?
Housing may be the biggest obstacle. Employers need employees. Employees need a place to live.
What tools and services do northern Illinois communities have that can be better applied to this effort?
I think that making contractors aware of all the services that are available to them would be a great place to start. Many contractors are unaware of the many resources that are available to them. These resources include tax incentives and in some cases, grants.
What are your thoughts on the Illinois Freedom of Information Act?
All Whiteside County Board Members must take the Freedom of Information Training. I believe that the Freedom of Information is a necessity.
Please state your plan to maintain government transparency.
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act is one way to maintain transparency. Posting all meeting dates and times, in advance, is another way. Additionally, offering attendance of meetings via Zoom means that nearly everyone can now attend and hear everything that is said at the meetings as well as ask questions and voice their opinion.
What would you push for as a member of county government to boost local businesses?
I have helped to pass ARPA Funds approval for businesses that were forced to close due to COVID mandates. I recognize the hardship this placed on all of the businesses that followed the state mandates and this is one way to work to help them recover.
Should government employees and officials be allowed to sign non-disclosure agreements with private businesses?
Yes. There are times that an organization must submit non-public information about their company to the county, in order to apply for tax incentives or grants. Because this information would not normally be available to government employees and officials, under other circumstances, I think a non- disclosure agreement is a fair request.
Would you push for or against government officials and employees being allowed to sign non- disclosure agreements with private businesses?
I would push for it, with limitations.
It appears inflation — in a way that hasn’t been experienced in a long time — is going to be an issue that could affect all local governments for the foreseeable future. What is the role of the county board as rising prices put a pinch on existing revenues?
I believe that we need to look for other forms of revenue. One way is to bring more businesses to the county. More businesses in our county means more revenue for the county through that new business’ revenues and through their employees.
Do you think there is a local crime problem? If so, what needs to be done about it?
If we have one crime, it is one too many, so yes we have a crime problem. I would like to see our police meet with the public more - hosting more events that bring the public and the police closer together. I want people to know their policemen and policewomen on a first name basis and I want the police to know the people of their communities that they are serving. By everyone being more involved, we can help to eliminate crime.
What local road and bridge projects should be a priority to get done in the county?
In our area, we have both county roads and township roads. Whiteside County has responsibility for approximately 200 miles of road. The Whiteside County Web Site has an interactive map that shows a five year plan for repairing its roads and bridges. This map currently goes through 2025.
Do you support decreasing local property taxes? If so, how would the county make up the difference?
It would be great to reduce local property taxes. In order to do that, new revenue would need to be found. Whiteside County was once abundant with industry. Through the years, most of these large industries have closed and left us with empty buildings. We have to get new businesses or industries to come back to our area. If we can do that, we could reduce the local property tax.
Do you support stronger county government ethics laws? What measures do you support?
I believe that the current ethics laws for the state of Illinois is sufficient.
Is the Whiteside County airport underutilized, especially as it has a runway that can handle commercial traffic?
Yes it is underutilized. I became a pilot in the 1980s. I have flown in and out of hundreds of airports. Whiteside County Airport is one of the nicest small airports in the state - it has the latest technology for landing and it has a one mile long runway. I would love to see commercial flights out to other airports resumed.
Are there other investments to be made at the airport?
At this time, we need to concentrate on getting people to the airport. Many things are going to happen this summer that will help get people to the airport.
Is it a matter of promotion?
This summer you will see things at the airport that will help promote it. Events at the airport take a year or more to plan and schedule. What we will see this summer is the result of planning back in 2021 or before. These events will bring both the local citizens as well people from other parts of the country to our airport.
How can the airport be an economic boon?
The events that are planned for this summer are a great start. Not only can the local people spend a day with their family without spending a few hundred dollars, the people who come in from other parts of the country will see what is available here. An airport such as ours can be the difference between a large company bringing in a new business or not. Executives fly to their companies in today’s world. They do not want to fly in and then drive 50 miles to their company. Because the nearest airport that can handle planes as large as Whiteside County Airport can is over 50 miles away, and we have the property and tax incentives available to them, we are a great choice.
Whiteside County set aside $5 million in ARPA funds for unspecified projects. How should that money be spent and why?
I want the public to answer that question.