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Morton looks to hire more police officers, full-time firefighters as village's population grows

Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman speaks at the annual Morton Forecast breakfast earlier this month.
Steve Stein
Morton Mayor Jeff Kaufman speaks at the annual Morton Forecast breakfast earlier this month.

Past, present and future projects and programs in Morton were spotlighted last week at the annual Morton Forecast Breakfast.

Leaders from the village, school district, park district, library and Morton Economic Development Council spoke at the Morton Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, attended by 125 at the Morton Knights of Columbus hall.

Here's a sampling of what the leaders had to say:

Mayor Jeff Kaufman touched on a number of topics, including the village's response to what he called "growing pains." Morton's population has grown the past two years and now is close to 18,000, Kaufman said.

  • The village wants to hire five daytime weekday full-time firefighters for the otherwise all-volunteer Morton Fire Department to address a shortage of volunteer firefighters who are available during daytime hours. Volunteer firefighters would continue to be the primary responders during nighttime hours and weekends. About 50% of the department's calls come in between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. In 1978, the department responded to 198 calls with an average of 19.2 volunteer firefighters responding. There were 2,837 calls in 2022 with an average of 2.6 volunteer firefighters responding.
  • There also are plans to hire additional police officers for the first time in 20 years. Morton's population has increased 12% during that time.
  • The village's budget for 2022-23 has $17.025 million in extraordinary capital expenditures. The list of projects includes $4 million for an extension of Flint Street and $1 million for an expansion of the Birchwood Street and Erie Avenue intersection, both related to the construction of the 500,000-square-foot, 47-foot tall Precision Planting operations center on Erie. A $2 million IDOT grant will help pay for the Flint Street project.
  • A storage and restroom building is planned for the Church Square, with construction in 2024. Also in 2024, Detroit Street will be repaved and a bike trail from Birchwood north to the intersection with Jefferson Street will be constructed.
Morton Park District executive director Joel Dickerson
Morton Park District
Morton Park District executive director Joel Dickerson

Morton Park District Executive Director Joel Dickerson talked about three projects that will improve park district programming.

  • An 11.5-acre parcel adjacent to Northwood Park that the park district acquired in January will be transformed into a "campground" after the 2023 harvest of crops. The parcel will be used for camping during the disc golf tournaments held at Northwood. The rest of the year, it will be a space to people to fly drones.
  • A small property on the corner of Birchwood and Fourth Avenue that the park district acquired from the village last year will be developed into a dog park.
  • The former Morton First Presbyterian Church building and grounds at 1020 E. Jackson St. were donated to the park district in 2022 and are being transformed into a home for senior citizen programming on weekends and an event venue on weekends. The building is 100 years old.

Dickerson also said the Morton Pool is doing well financially (it made a profit of about $30,000 last year) and had 25,644 swimmers during open swim sessions last year, and the Professional Disc Golf Association's junior and amateur world championships will be at Northwood Park from June 27 through July 1.
The two disc golf courses at Northwood and the park district's third disc golf course at Westwood Park will be among the courses hosting the Ledgestone Open from July 29 through Aug. 6.

Morton School District Superintendent Craig Smock lauded two bi-weekly podcasts launched last year by district staff members.

Smock said "Care-U" offers advice for parents in a non-shaming and non-blaming manner, in the words of Stephanie Brown, the district's staff and student wellness coordinator. She does the podcast with Don Sturm, the district's technology integration specialist.

"Through the Educational Looking Glass" is a podcast for teachers that offers opportunities for self-reflection. Sturm and Courtney Eddleman, Morton High School's instructional coach, do this podcast.

Another recent development was a new school board policy regarding parental authority and the role of district educators.

"The board wanted to convey and memorialize that we will not be implementing curriculum nor teaching topics that we feel are more appropriately taught in the home," Smock said.

"Political preferences and other ideologies, philosophies, and religious tenets should be taught by parents, not teachers.

"The policy also asserts that teachers are responsible to present a balanced approach when it comes to debatable topics, such as political views."

Smock repeated a statement made by board President Tim Braker regarding the policy: "We are here to teach kids how to think, not what to think."

Morton Public Library Director Alissa Williams, who oversees the busiest library in Tazewell County, talked about the library's "Ready Readers" program, a partnership with the Morton School District.

Morton Public Library director Alissa Williams
Steve Stein
Morton Public Library director Alissa Williams

Launched in the summer of 2022, the program is for children entering second and third grade who are at risk for summer reading regression.

Twenty-nine students identified by Morton public and private schools who were "just below" grade level and did not qualify for the school district's summer school participated in two four-week sessions.

Reading test scores for Morton School District students who took part in the program were compared, and the comparison showed that 66% of the students either held or improved their reading level.

There were 79,133 library visitors in 2022, up from 63,922 in 2021, a 23.8% increase. The most recent circulation figures, for the 2020-21 fiscal year, documented 195,965 adult, teen and children's items checked out.

Leigh Ann Brown, CEO of the Morton Economic Development Council, spoke about the organization's initiatives to bring new businesses to Morton.

Here are some additional 2022 Morton numbers reported at the breakfast:

  • Commercial and industrial projects: $35,361,471 investment.
  • Retail sales tax collected: $5,256,515.
  • Estimated attendance at the July 4 fireworks show: 8,500.
  • Estimated attendance at the Arts in the Park concert series: 3,000.
  • Estimated average attendance and season vendor count at the Farmers Market: 900 and 50.
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