KANKAKEE — Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong is explaining the city’s decision to spend more than $600 per month to lease her a car.
When Wells-Armstrong became mayor in 2017, she inherited the Chevrolet Impala driven by former Mayor Nina Epstein.
“I wanted a slightly larger vehicle. I was used to a vehicle a little higher off the ground, an SUV,” Wells-Armstrong said during her recent monthly live video on the city’s website.
So, the mayor began using a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe driven by the former fire chief.
Last year, though, when the mayor’s Tahoe was parked behind Majestic Theatre, a customer at nearby Peoples Bank suffered a medical issue and lost control of her car, Wells-Armstrong said. She ended up hitting the mayor’s car and another SUV parked next to the mayor’s, the mayor said.
“I was disappointed with some of the people in the community who expressed no concern for her well-being, but used the opportunity to attack me,” the mayor said.
About six months after the incident, the city replaced Wells-Armstrong’s Tahoe with a 2019 Ford Explorer, which the city is leasing for $611 per month from Enterprise.
The city received a settlement of $12,000 for the mayor’s totaled car, an amount that will cover 20 payments for the Explorer. The Explorer lease features a “fairly comprehensive” maintenance program, according to the city.
The lease is for 60 months, but the city can opt out at any time. The total amount over 60 months is $36,600.
In 2018, the City Council approved the lease program 13-1. Wells-Armstrong’s car was the first to be leased.
The mayor said she doesn’t consider a Ford Explorer a luxury car and that most people wouldn’t.
“It’s not even a top-of-the-line Ford Explorer,” she said.
Wells-Armstrong said she uses the car to take groups of people around town, particularly on economic development tours.
Last month, 3rd Ward Republican Aldermen Larry Osenga and Dave Crawford and 5th Ward Democrat Tyler Tall voted against making a payment on the lease.
In her live video, Wells-Armstrong noted Osenga had done some research and found Enterprise to be a good company for leasing cars. She called it irresponsible for council members to vote against paying a bill for a contract that the city has already entered.
In a later interview, Osenga acknowledged his role in selecting Enterprise, but he said the discussion on leasing was focused on medium-sized cars.
“A Ford Explorer is not a medium-sized vehicle,” Osenga said. “I’m not opposed to a lease program. I was shocked to see what we were paying for one vehicle. Rank has its privileges. To me, that’s taking advantage. We are not Naperville or Schaumburg. We are struggling. That was too much money.”
In her video, Wells-Armstrong said she reports her personal use of the Explorer at the end of the year and pays taxes on that amount. She noted social media feedback that the mayor of Bourbonnais does not get a city car.
In response, Wells-Armstrong said Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Schore is a full-time employee of CSL Behring and that the village has an administrator and an assistant administrator. The city of Kankakee, by contrast, does not have those positions.
“I am handling the day-to-day operations of the city,” she said. “That’s the difference between the two.”
Schore declined to comment on the issue.
In an email this week, Wells-Armstrong said she was not sure why her car is a story.
“Perhaps the story is why no one has been vocal and against any previous mayors having access to city vehicles or the many department heads who have access to city vehicles,” the mayor said.
She said the discussion had been replacing her Tahoe with another SUV and that she needs a “mid-size” vehicle to take around guests to the city.
The mayor questioned why the three aldermen would vote against making the third payment on a contract.
“They approved paying the first and second months but not the third month. What is the rationale for doing that? The city entered into a contract and we have three aldermen voting to not pay the bill for the contract,” Wells-Armstrong said.
Also in her live video, the mayor said:
• “A goal of mine is start reducing the cost of (vehicle) stickers. We’re not there yet,” Wells-Armstrong said.
• Parts of the Schuyler Avenue streetscape project should be finished in time for the Merchant Street Music Festival, which is July 26 and 27.
• People are frustrated with construction projects. “When I see it, I get excited. It means we are building the city,” she said. One of those projects, she said, was Nicor’s replacement of gas mains on Court Street.