Covering the Land of Lincoln

Q&A: Peoria City Council member Kelly discusses housing, crime, and neighborhood revitalization

John Kelly says he wants a second term as an at-large Peoria City Council member because he feels he has points of view that need to be expressed and considered.

Kelly is one of 10 candidates on the ballot in the April 4 consolidated election for the five at-large seats around the horseshoe. WCBU plans to interview each candidate ahead of Election Day.

In an extended conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Kelly discusses neighborhood revitalization, affordable housing, crime prevention and what he sees as his biggest accomplishment in his four years on the council.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Why did you decide to run for re-election, and why do you think voters should give you another four-year term?

John Kelly: Well, I have points of view that I think need to be expressed and perhaps hopefully acted on in the City Council. So far, that has gone somewhat well and hopefully we can continue that.

When you say it’s “gone somewhat well,” what do you consider to be some of your biggest accomplishments in your first four years on the council?

Kelly: My biggest accomplishment, interestingly enough, is one that hasn’t really worked very well. My biggest accomplishment is the bringing about of using a state statute that no city had ever used before to offer tax abatement – that is, real estate tax abatement – on new construction for single-family homes in some of our more challenged neighborhoods.

If I may, if I understand correctly, you’re referring to the Urban Decay Tax Abatement Zone that you had pushed to kind of help development in the North Valley and South Side – is that correct?

Kelly: That’s correct.

And when you say it hasn’t gone as well, can you elaborate on that?

Kelly: Well, first of all, it refers only to brand new, single-family, owner-occupied homes. For some years, well before I was on the council, I’ve been trying to talk our state legislators into amending that statute so that it can also be applied to rehabs in those areas. New construction (of) brand new single-family homes is not really economically – I wouldn’t say it’s not possible, but it’s unlikely. But we’ve gotten a start in that, and hopefully our legislators will amend that statute, and if that passed, we’ll implement that in Peoria and then I think this particular ordinance will get some legs.

Why do you think that new construction hasn’t been spurred by this?

Kelly: Economically, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I feel that the problem, one of the problems, in some of these neighborhoods is that the economics of the neighborhoods is rather poor. For instance, this is where we’ll find rental properties that are sometimes not well-maintained, and that same landlord in another part of town has very nicely maintained properties. So the difference there is not the evil landlord, but it’s poor economics. If we can step in and change the economics of those areas, at least for a period of time, that I think can encourage reinvestment in those areas, thereby improving the look of the neighborhoods but also improving the lives of the people who lived there.

When you mention, particularly, revitalizing neighborhoods and the city’s need for affordable housing, how can the city address this and make more affordable housing available to the people who need it?

Kelly: I don’t know that, statistically, Peoria, Illinois, has an affordable housing problem; housing seems to be fairly affordable. I think what we have is a problem of a lack of investment in the housing we have. Oftentimes, “affordable housing” is code for “subsidized housing.” But if you go into some of these neighborhoods and you ask homeowners there if they want more subsidized housing in their neighborhood, they will say, “no.”

As a matter of fact, the Illinois Housing Development Authority had some big plans for Peoria, with building multifamily rental housing with tax credits for the investors, etc., etc.; nice shiny new buildings. And in both the North Valley and on the South Side of Peoria, the great majority of the homeowners were very much opposed to that, figuring that that kind of concentration, first of all, I think it’s very difficult to find places where that works, including in Peoria. Secondly, it’s a breeding ground for crime, etc.; they’d rather have those things spread out. Where the rent level (stands) and whatnot in Peoria, and with oftentimes the assistance of HUD, people are able to rent at apparently reasonable prices.

When I recently spoke to the mayor, she was saying that particularly on the South Side, there’s a couple of housing developments that are proposed that are going before (the) Planning and Zoning (Commission). And she says these projects are needed to rebuild the population in the South Side to help spur the economy, eliminate food desert issues, things of that nature. Do you not see that as a need?

Kelly: I certainly see that as a need, but let’s go to first cases: Why is it that the South Side of Peoria when I was a kid, or a little before, had about 50,000 people in it, and now it has around 11,000 people, OK? To me, the culprit is, among other things, poor economics. To go back in and put in programs that were not there when this was a very successful neighborhood is a rather dicey proposition – and it doesn’t work in other cities; it hasn’t worked here.

Why should we take our cue on redevelopment from places like Detroit, or Milwaukee, or Pittsburgh, or Toledo or whatever? These things don’t work there. There’s lots of money available for that, public money. But that doesn’t prove that these sorts of things work.

These are very difficult problems, and oftentimes are exacerbated by mostly federal regulations and federal policies which encourage single motherhood, encourage a lack of marriage. Then this just starts to build and build and build. So we now have, with a lower population in those areas, we have much more crime than we had before. Crime to me, high crime rates are a symptom of deeper problems.

We have a wonderful police force, I think; I’m sure there’s always room for improvement. But I think we have very good police force (and) a really fine police chief, but they’re the last people in the chain on crime. The first thing in the chain on a good society is good strong families, etc. We have managed – in the last 60, 70, 80 years, primarily since the Great Society in the 60s – we have taken the Black population of the nation and of our city, which had the highest rate of marriage, the lowest rate of divorce, the lowest rate of unwed motherhood – all those statistics, we have turned them on their head. In those categories, the Black population was better than the white population; we have turned that upside down.

Unless we go after these human problems, these problems where we’re human nature is violated, we’re not going to solve it with a whole lot more money. These are totally, totally capable people, and we pay them not to be capable – and many of them, not all, many of them take us up on it, especially very young people where this looks like a nice deal. They get to be about 30 years old, and they’re not too happy about it, and oftentimes resentful, and perhaps rightfully so.

What more would you like to see the city do in regard to reducing violent crime?

Kelly: I would like to see a lot more emphasis on the base causes – which is much more of a long term thing – the base causes of why capable people are in poverty. I would like to see some reform in our education system, but that’s not necessarily the bailiwick of City Hall. I work with kids at Trewyn School, and they’re good kids; they’re bright kids – most of them are second graders. They can hardly read; some can’t read, and they’re in second grade, and there’s nothing wrong with these kids. And you go elsewhere in the city or around the city, (and) second graders are reading like crazy. Now, what’s the problem here? And they’ll always say, “Well, you know, they’re come from broken homes, they go …” Well, yeah, OK. But the public school system was always there to pull people up, and it seems to me that they encourage this feeling of victimhood, which is not good.

I suppose there are other things we could do. We could make our entire city a lot more amenable to investment, and I believe that most of that investment would not come from the outside; it would come from the inside. If we could make life a little bit easier for the over 8,000 businesses in Peoria, the economic effect of that would be bigger than some big new outfit coming to town. I have no problem with outside investment; I think that’s fine. But we concentrate on that a lot and we don’t concentrate on making life easier for those people who are already here. They’re already paying taxes, they’re already hiring people, they’re already serving the community. There’s tremendous wealth creation that’s available in our community right now.

Well, how would you like to see the city encourage more economic development and business growth?

Kelly: I think (with) some regulatory reform. Once again, we do things that all these other cities do. I would say – and this is quite subjective – but people talk about East Peoria or Washington or whatever, “they’re much more business friendly,” etc., etc. They have the same rules we do; they use the same building codes, they use the same basic regulations, OK? So what’s the difference? I think a lot of times the difference is attitude.

I hear – and I’ve not been there firsthand, but I hear – that oftentimes, or sometimes anyway, when people come to our City Hall, they will say, “Well, that doesn’t quite qualify, regulatory wise,” or whatever; “thanks for coming.” So people walk away (and) say, “Well, hey, Peoria’s not business friendly.” Well, it’s about as business friendly as any of these other towns around. So what’s the difference? To me, that wouldn’t be all that difficult to change – I’ve spoken with the city manager about this a few times – if we could just go out of our way to be helpful.

You mentioned, you’ve spoken with the city manager about this. How would you assess Patrick Urich’s performance as city manager?

Kelly: I think he’s a very good administrator. I don’t want to answer that, OK?

OK, well, moving on. What do you see is the city’s other biggest issues and needs, and what are your goals for the next term if re-elected?

Kelly: Well, we have significant public works needs: streets, stormwater, those kinds of things in the near term. The solution to that is an expansion of our tax base – that is, higher assessed values, more commerce, etc. The answer is not raising taxes to get more money, because typically when we raise taxes, we make a much less money than is projected, typically.

Further, we’ve got a terrible pension problem that’s hanging over our heads. Even though we’re kind of flush with money at the moment, the projections are that in four or five years, we’re underwater again. I think it would be really nice for our legislature to change the rules on pensions. I don’t believe that’s going to happen, and hoping for such a thing, I think, is really irresponsible. We have to take care of this ourselves by making Peoria much more amenable to investment. I think, in most Peoria neighborhoods, the quality of life, etc. is good; it could probably be better, but I think it’s good. It’s a good place to live: People come here and are surprised. So I think being attractive to further investment is the key.

You mentioned the pension problem and that kind of leads into another one of my questions: What do you think the city’s fiscal priorities should be?

Kelly: On the revenue side, I think we have to be conscious of what behaviors different kinds of taxes encourage, OK? We have a system where we punish people for having a nice building, or fixing up a building. We have a system that punishes people for shopping in Peoria, OK? Our penalty taxation is significant. I am not a person who minds – although I don’t want to depend on this – I don’t mind fees, so much as that fees are a lot different than taxes on doing the right thing, and we have really nice, big, fat taxes on doing the right thing.

On the spending side, public works (and) public safety, as far as citizens are concerned, I think those are the two big things that the city provides. So fiscally, I would spend more of my energy on the revenue side because I think we’re reaping what we’re sowing, and that ain’t so hot.

The Peoria Rivermen’s lease at the Civic Center expires at the end of this season, and Carver Arena’s ice plant is malfunctioning. It was estimated two years, three years ago to cost $2.5 million to replace. Arena management says they have other higher priority improvements that they need to make to use up the $25 million in state funding that they’re receiving. Where do you stand on the city getting involved financially in keeping the Rivermen at the Civic Center?

Kelly: Well, that specifically, not much. The Civic Center has a lot of things going on, including the Rivermen; I mean, I’m all for the Rivermen. But the ice plant obviously needs to be – I don’t know which it is – replaced or significantly fixed. At our last city council meeting, I did ask the question, “Is it so that the Civic Center does not generate enough internal revenue and revenue from the HRA (hotel, restaurant and amusement) tax to take care of its capital needs over time? Or are we always going to be begging the state or City Hall for more money in order to maintain the asset itself?” That would include ice, but that includes everything; $25 million that comes in (from the state) and it’s not going to be used for ice? It means, holy cow, that’s a big number and we’re that far behind in capital expenditures? That was surprising to me.

If it came to a point where it was the city had to pay for a new ice plant or the Rivermen were going to leave, where would you stand on that – if it was a “one or the other” type situation?

Kelly: I would not fund it, as you ask me; you know, I haven’t considered that. But I would say, “You have to reorganize your capital expenditures.” I need to be satisfied that, “What do you actually need to run this place? And what are we actually bringing in? And what is the difference?” No, I mean, I might end up finally voting to fix up the ice thing, but there has to be a lot of discussion before that happen.

What is your optimism for the direction that Peoria is headed, or where do you want to see Peoria within four years?

Kelly: I’d like to see, four years from now, 15,000-20,000 more residents in our city. I’d like to see the valley neighborhoods revitalizing. Look, I’d probably like to see the same thing everybody else would like to see. How you get there is not to force it; how to get there is to create an environment, create a climate that says, “this will pay; this will work.” Then what happens after that I can’t predict, but it’ll be good.

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