Q&A: District 5 Councilman Cyr desires ‘more conversation’ on various key issues facing Peoria
Denis Cyr has been a public figure in Peoria for more than 30 years. originally as a pro hockey player with the Rivermen and later heading a financial services firm.
He is now in his second term as the City Council representative for the Fifth District.
In a wide-ranging conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Cyr stresses that his top priority as a City Council member is to serve the needs of his constituents.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What are your biggest goals and plans for the Fifth District as well as the city as a whole? What do you see as the biggest issues or priorities?
Denis Cyr: Obviously, my No. 1 priority is to represent my constituents in Fifth District, and in the Fifth District now there are three things that are very important: No. 1 is roads, No. 2 is roads, and No. 3 are roads. Everybody in the Fifth District, they have nice houses (and) they pay a lot of property taxes and sales tax and everything else, all kinds of taxes in Peoria. And that's always the No. 1 complaint in the Fifth District, really. I'm being facetious, but it's really about roads, roads, and roads. After that, obviously, everybody has the right to enjoy their property, and safety is very important also, and good schools are very important. But really in the Fifth District, the No. 1 complaint, really, it's mostly about the roads right now.
So what is wrong with the roads and what would you like to see done? What areas specifically need to be fixed?
Cyr: Well, I'm very truthful with my constituents and to me, I've been a councilman now for five years. (Scott) Reeise, I believe, was my first public works director and he was talking about, at the time, we have over 110 linear miles of roads in Peoria, and when you look at it, he told me at the time that 70% of our roads needed to be fixed – I meant to say 1,100 (miles). So 70% of that would be over 700 miles of road at $1 million per mile, we're talking about a lot of money – and the other 30% of our roads really need a complete redo, complete reconstruction at a cost of at least $3 million per mile. Again, that you're looking at over 300 miles so you're looking at $1.5-$2 billion really, (and) that conversation took place about five years ago; we all know the costs are much higher today.
But we're looking at billions of dollars to fix all the roads in Peoria, it's impossible to do. We spend anywhere from $20-$30 million a year right now, which is great. It's more than we ever spent in the past. But we'll never catch up. We have this company that we hired out of Atlanta comes in every three years to grade the roads, so we try to do it in a proper way, which is the roads that are most traveled, No. 1 the busiest roads by traffic count and all that and, obviously, the roads that need it the most also. So we try to prioritize where we spend the money. But it's very, very difficult, and it's a very hard conversation to have with my constituents because in the Fifth District, roads are very important. But there's just not enough money.
A lot of programs in this area now, in this city, there's a lot of great programs, a lot of great ideas, but just there's just not enough money for all of them. For us to have a chance to do a better job at our roads, we need help, obviously, from the state and from the Fed. That's the only chance we have that, down the road, maybe in the next 15-20 years, maybe our roads will get a lot better if we can get some more help from the state and from the Fed.
We're seeing some road projects kind of getting underway, some of the – like you said – focused on which ones that are the most in need right now. Do you think that’s at least a start in the right direction?
Cyr: Of course, I mean, like I said, we're spending more money today than we ever did, no past council. So, we're going in the right direction but it’s going to be a long haul.
What are your thoughts on police Chief Eric Echevarria’s community-based anti-violence initiative and how effective it's been so far this year?
Cyr: This is a very difficult question to answer. We live in a time and 2022 where everybody wants results today or tomorrow, and some of these questions you're asking me we have some answers, but it should be long-term. The chief is a great guy; I like him a lot and he's doing a great job, a lot of people like him. He (has) lots of energy (and) a lot of his programs are working good so far. But we know we have a lot of work to do. I had a meeting with the chief a few days ago and I really like his energy; his level of energy is great and he's accomplished a lot already in Peoria. But we have a lot more to do so he's got his hands full.
We're about 30 police officers short right now – 30. I mean, think about that. So how do you hire 30? Well, I mean, if you look at the social media and your kid today, who wants to be a police officer? So now he's got a tough job to do and the recruiting I would think would be one of the most important responsibility right now, to try to find another 30 police officers for Peoria.
What else should the city be doing to cut down on gun violence particularly after the Council recently deadlocked on funding for the Cure Violence Program?
Cyr: Again, very tough conversation to have. We just need more time. I mean, you're not – people want results tomorrow, and it's just not going to happen. We need more conversation. We need to see what's working in other cities, what has worked in other cities, and we just need more conversation. For me, I was not part of the last two (council) meetings; I was out for personal reasons, so I was not part of the conversation. But that's one of the reasons I had a meeting with the chief a few days ago; I'm trying to bring myself up to date and I had a lot of questions and, and I want to be part of the future conversation.
But we just need a lot more communication, and there's a lot of great questions out there and we need some answers. We just can't spend money on something without knowing exactly where it's going to go, because I have constituents and I have people that ask me questions all the time. They want to know, “hey, we're looking, right now for this program, we're looking at $1.3 million – where's the money going to be spent? You know, what we're going to do with it? How's it going to work? How are we going to know if we're making progress or not?” Those are all great questions that they have for me, that I don't have any answers yet because I was not part of the conversation. So I'm looking forward to be part of the conversation in the next few meetings because I know it's going to be on the agenda.
How worried are you that Peoria’s shifting population, especially northward sprawl, is spreading the city's resources too thin, especially in regard to public safety like fire and police?
Cyr: Well, again, obviously we just got a census a few months ago and we did some redistricting and obviously people in Peoria are moving north, a lot of people. The census told us now we have about 110,000 people now in Peoria, and our rules call for making sure all the districts are fairly equal in population. So in the Fifth District here, I lost about 5,500 people to the Fourth District because everybody was moving north.
So you have to change with time, and again that's part of the conversation: Can we do better? Can we allocate our assets better? Can we change where our stations are at? Can we change where we're deploying our people? These are the questions that the city manager and that both chiefs, the fire chief and police chief, are having all the time, because I want to have these conversations and I know my colleagues around the horseshoe want to have those conversations, too.
I mean, there's only so much money we have. So all of us (are) just trying to be more efficient, and if there's ways that we can be more efficient, and I know there are. When I talk to those people, it’s just a matter of having some difficult conversations and finding out what are the best systems right now. Because all our police stations – our police station, and the one up north – and then all the fire stations, these have been designed a long time ago and, like you said, population has shifted in different areas of Peoria. Are these still the best locations? I want to have those conversations: Maybe they are, maybe they're not. But let's talk about it.
What more should the city be doing to encourage economic development, business growth, and job creation?
Cyr: Well, I think you need to make it a priority and, again, you have to talk to people. Peoria, in my experience, my personal experience, we've always been terrible at promoting Peoria. But I'm excited about our possibilities in Peoria. I mean, people always say, “the state’s the problem.” Yeah, the State of Illinois is not a great state; we're not business-friendly in the State of Illinois. But Peoria is my home, and Peoria – I love Peoria and I know Peoria is a great city to raise a family, and we have a lot to offer. But we’re just not doing a good job at telling our story.
A lot of people were talking about Caterpillar leaving (Illinois). Well, that's not good for Peoria, obviously. But we still have over 12,000 jobs right here in Peoria that come with Caterpillar, and we need to make sure that we have to keep those jobs – do whatever we can to keep those jobs, No. 1. No. 2, we’ve got the hospital (OSF Saint Francis) now. We need to embrace our hospitals and the medical field. There's a lot of things happening in Peoria. I mean, you’ve got a new headquarters where Saint Francis was moved downtown. We have the cancer center (OSF HealthCare Cancer Institute) being built right now, and that's going to be state of the art.
We have a lot – a lot – of things that I'm excited about in Peoria, and we just have to tell our story. It's just a great place, I think, to raise a family and we’ve just never done a good job of promoting Peoria. That's one of the thing I'd love to see happen.
A major financial issue still facing the city is its public service pension requirements. How do you suggest the city should pay for these pensions, and would you be in favor of raising taxes to meet that burden?
Cyr: No, I don't want to – I mean, nobody wants to raise taxes. That's one of the reasons why Illinois is not a very friendly state, all the taxes we have to pay all the time. No, I think as far as the pension is concerned, No. 1, I have to say that these people have earned pension and nobody wants to take – well, I shouldn’t say “nobody” – I do not want to take any benefits away from people that a promise has been made to those people, and we need to live up to those promises. That's No. 1.
But we need to talk, again; we need to have the conversation and the conversation needs to be really in Springfield, not in Peoria. There is absolutely nothing that we can do here in Peoria. People tell me all the time, “well, the party's in Springfield and we get the bill here in Peoria.” Well, that's kind of true. So our elected officials in Springfield are the one that needs to have that conversation and talk about how they can solve this problem.
I mean, there's three or four different things they easily can do if they wanted to. Change the amortization schedule, instead of being – we’ve got, what, 19 years to go, I believe. Instead of 18-19 years to go, maybe we amortize until 2050 or 2060. Maybe instead of having some type of inflation number, I think it's 3% right now, maybe it's 2% or maybe it's zero for a few years. I don't know; I mean, I don't have a seat at that table. I have ideas like everybody else, but I'm not invited into that conversation. But we just need to call our people that represent us in Springfield and talk to them, and maybe they can do something to help us with the bill that we get every year here in Peoria.
You mentioned roads at the start of the conversation. What do you see as other major infrastructure needs in the Fifth District or as the city as a whole?
Cyr: Well, you know, I mean, roads is No. 1, I think. We call it the “complete roads” now, and I think, again like you said, people are shifting (and) their way of living is changing. I think, especially if we want a vibrant downtown, I think we need the good roads, we need good sidewalks. We need good connectivity between neighborhoods, new neighborhoods and old neighborhoods. People like to ride their bikes a lot. So, we just need to look at the future and what would make Peoria more vibrant.
Since plans to convert the Prairie Vista apartments into affordable housing units have been abandoned earlier this year, how do you think Peoria should go about addressing its need for more affordable housing options?
Cyr: Well, we have two or three organizations that are working all the time towards that. Obviously, we need more affordable housing but I think that these people are doing a good job. It's a matter of, again, a lot of these people have solutions. But we're just not talking with the right people and we're not having the right conversations right now. Everybody knows we need more affordable housing, and we just need to make it a priority and have the conversation.
There's just not enough conversation about – these topics that you're bringing up are very, very important to any city, right? So we need to have more conversation, and then be upfront and not be afraid to have an opinion on it and give your thoughts and see what we can do. But we definitely need more housing in Peoria.
You say regularly, “have these conversations” and “hear the opinions.” It sounds to me like you want to be able to listen to what other people have to say, but what kind of contributions or opinions would you have, though, toward where maybe we should look at developing more housing?
Cyr: Obviously, where there's blight. We're always talking about that, and it comes down to money again. We just need more demolition in Peoria, No 1, so we can clear some areas. Then we need to really have a dedicated effort to one or two areas where this is where we're going to make a commitment to go and find some investors, find some land, find some contractors, find some money, find some grants. We have a few of these organizations that are doing this in Peoria. We just need more, that’s all.
Are you supportive of the efforts to bring passenger train service back to Peoria? Do you think that would benefit the city in the region, and if so how?
Cyr: Yes, of course, I'm supporting. I’m supporting the effort; I think that’s a priority for a Mayor (Rita) Ali. I'm not sure I understand, to be honest with you, the whole conversation. I mean, we're looking at nine, 10, 11 years down the road, and we're looking at a lot of money, big costs. But so far, what's coming back in their reports and their studies is: people want this type of project, so if people want it, we should try to give it to them. Ten years from now, I won't be here as a councilman; probably not. But I hope we're successful. Maybe, if it's going to help Peoria, you know, why not?
As a former Peoria Rivermen player, what was your reaction to the team winning the Southern Professional Hockey League championship this season?
Cyr: Well, it’s great. Everybody wants to be a winner and everybody wants to be part of a winner. For these young men, that's going to be a great memory of Peoria; hopefully a few of them will stay here in Peoria like I did. That’s something that can never be taken away from them so it's a great accomplishment for them. It's a great accomplishment for the organization and the ownership, and I think a great accomplishment for Peoria. That's another champion right here in Peoria.
It’s kind of fitting that it was the 40th anniversary season too, right?
Cyr: There is no better way to celebrate an anniversary like this than with a championship team.
The current lease agreement between the Civic Center and the Rivermen only last through next season, though, and the rink’s 40-year-old ice plant has had numerous issues. How concerned are you about the team's ability to remain in Peoria beyond next year?
Cyr: Well, I'm very concerned. The Civic Center is an older building and needs some money. I think Sen. (Dave) Koehler was able to get some money, I believe was like $25 million, for renovation and all that. I think, though, the Civic Center management were looking for maybe $30-$40 million to get everything done that needs to be done. So, again we’re coming back to there's just not enough money for everything.
So out of this with the $25 million, that grant that they will receive eventually, I'm hoping that they'll have some money – they need a new floor at the Civic Center. If the Rivermen are going to stay there long term, they just need a new floor, and that's very expensive; I mean, we're looking at a couple million dollars for a new floor. So there's not enough money for everything, and then the people at Civic Center will have to prioritize what they want to get done and what makes sense to them.
But for me with my background, obviously, and my love of the game, I hope that somehow we find a way to keep the Rivermen right here in Peoria. When you think about what Peoria has to offer in having a vibrant downtown, there’s no other cities in this area I can think of that has a basketball team (Bradley University), a baseball team (Peoria Chiefs) and a hockey team. So I think that's something that differentiates us (and) I think adds to the quality of life in Peoria, and I hope they stay here for a long time.