Q&A: Oyler identifies pensions, infrastructure, economic growth among Peoria’s biggest issues
Zach Oyler is seeking another term as an at-large Peoria City Council member, a position he's held for six years.
He is one of three incumbents among the 10 candidates running for the five at-large seats around the horseshoe.
In an extended conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Oyler discusses why he's running for another term and what goals and priorities he envisions for the city.
WCBU plans to interview all 10 at-large council candidates ahead of the April 4 municipal election.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You've been on the city council now since 2017. Why did you choose to seek another four-year term?
Zach Oyler: There's still a lot of work to do in the City of Peoria. I think we have incredible opportunities with the right vision and leadership, and I think that it's important to continue the things that I have started working on — a couple of those being eliminating the parcel pension fee, being a watchdog for the taxpayers, ensuring that we're making wise and efficient use of taxpayer dollars and the big thing is focusing on economic development and “how do we start to grow?”
When you say the parcel pension, could you explain that a little bit more for our listeners who aren't aware of the situation?
Oyler: A couple of years ago, we had a ballot initiative to eliminate the parcel pension fee; it was a fee that was created about four or five years ago. I opposed it when it was created. It was an additional revenue generator to go to pensions, and that didn't fix the problem; it doesn't fix the problem. I ran a campaign to eliminate it and we successfully eliminated that fee. About a year and a half ago, during an election cycle, the public weighed in at almost 80% and gave a signal to the council that they did not want this fee. Then we use that to get the votes on the council to eventually defeat it and ensure that it's not returned this year.
Obviously, the pension obligations are a major cloud hanging over the city at this time. How do you think the city should go about addressing those?
Oyler: We need help from Springfield. We have to get all of our public safety unions, as well as our legislators around the state (and) local municipalities, all in the same room talking out of the same playbook that this is a gigantic issue and it will eventually bankrupt local municipalities. We're going to run out of money if we don't find solutions to the pension problem, and adding another fee or a tax isn't going to fix that problem. We can't generate enough revenue to pay our way out of the mess that we have here.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments over the past four years, and why do you think voters should give you another term?
Oyler: A couple of the biggest accomplishments, already we mentioned one: running a successful campaign to eliminate a fee. I don't think you see that very many times and government. Government's good at adding taxes and fees, but taking them away is a whole different story.
I've spent a lot of time championing downtown and economic growth. I serve on the DDC — Downtown Development Corporation; I'm now vice chair of that board, and putting a lot of effort into downtown in the Warehouse District and how do we expand. I've spent the last two years helping negotiate a deal for the city that will allow us to add 300 parking spaces in the Warehouse District so that we can now bring several buildings online on Washington Street that will allow for residential redevelopment. These buildings have been shuttered for decades, not generating the tax revenue that they could, not offering places for people to live in the Warehouse District. I think that once you have people living there, we'll start to see more amenities downtown again, as well.
Then a heavy focus in the historic neighborhoods. I serve on the Land Bank Board as well, and that's something that we created in the last couple of years. The effort there is to try and clean up some of the older neighborhoods and deal with blighted properties and start to turn those around as well into something that can be an economic and neighborhood benefit.
How can the city balance its desire to for economic growth and revitalizing downtown and the Warehouse District with addressing some of the more distressed areas of the city?
Oyler: It's really a balanced focus; it's having people engaged in both sides of the conversation and getting stakeholders at the table to talk about why we see these as priorities and how we start putting focus on them. Those are really the two places I've chosen to focus my time, and I think having engaged leadership that says that “this is a priority for us; this is where we want to spend our time.” Really taking a hard look at our resources to determine: how we effectively use them to spur economic growth, how do we utilize our code enforcement to clean up blighted properties, and just looking at the big picture.
The one-off, scattered site approach that we and other governments have done for years doesn't fix problems. Fixing one house in a bad neighborhood or one sidewalk when all of the other sidewalks are bad doesn't do anything for the neighborhood. We have to get all of the resources to an area and (take) a bigger picture approach and figure out how to actually turn something in a new direction.
As far as growth and economic development in the downtown and Warehouse District, what is working and what isn't? What more would you like to see done?
Oyler: I'd say probably the biggest challenge, for the Warehouse District specifically, has been the parking issue. These buildings were manufacturing facilities in their earlier days. The people who worked there either walked to work from the south end neighborhood or they took buses to work, and there wasn't the necessity for the parking there. So, the parking hasn't been part of that picture, and you can't do a 100-unit residential development in one of these old warehouses with five parking spaces out on the street in front.
It's taken quite a bit of time to actually get that turned around, and I think you're going to see a very different viewpoint on Washington Street in the next five years. Really, it's getting people that are looking at it and saying, “Hey, what's missing here? What would it take?” Going out and talking to developers, and that's what I spend time doing is getting developers to the table to say, “What are we missing here? What do we need to do next? What would it take to get you to do a project in our area?”
I now have an office in the downtown Warehouse District area so that I can be right there on the scene talking about some of these challenges, getting stakeholders in the room to say, “Where do we go from here? What do you need to consider doing something for us? It's just by spitballing ideas and seeing if we can find something that sticks, and then going out and talking to people to find out what would make this an attractive thing to do here.
You've mentioned a lot already, but what do you see as some of the city’s other biggest needs, and what are your goals for the next term if you are re-elected?
Oyler: A couple of the biggest challenges related around infrastructure. One of them is warehouse space, and this is something in my professional career that I deal with in real estate: we have a significant shortage of warehouse and manufacturing space in the area. Several years ago, it was something that you could give away and now it's something that we can't find enough of. So, there's a lot of discussions about cleaning up Pioneer Parkway and extending it, and creating the new growth cell so that we can have some conversations around either selling warehouse space, out off Route 91, or having some speculative builds, that turns into renting. So I think that's going to be a big thing in the next couple of years that I'd like to focus on.
Really, it's throughout the whole city (that) we're struggling with infrastructure and investment and streets, and it's something that we all talk about all the time. We've tried to prioritize a lot of our budget dollars into that the last couple of years, especially with COVID recovery funds, is how do we get the best bang for our buck with infrastructure? I think that's going to be a huge piece for us going forward.
Regarding anti-violence and crime prevention efforts, you did not support the city investing in the Cure Violence program. Do you think the mayor's Safety Network has been effective at addressing violence? What would you like to see done?
Oyler: That was really the issue; it's not that there's any real opposition to the fact that we need to address violence. We all agree that we need anti-violence programming. The issue was not having all of us at the table for the discussion. It's a significant issue for us; we talk about it being our No. 1 issue in many cases, is how do we deal with violence and make our neighborhoods safe? To me, it made no sense that the council as a whole was not at the table for these discussions to understand what our solutions are and seeing the presentations.
So much of that discussion took place behind closed doors with groups that we were not a part of, or were even aware were having meetings and who was involved with them. A lot of lack of transparency took place there, and that's why I couldn't support it. I can't spend taxpayer dollars when I can't account for exactly what's going on, and we put the brakes on it for that very reason: we all needed to be at the table, we needed to understand what was being addressed and how. I think that we've now gotten in a much better path with that and how we've handled that going through our normal processes.
So do you think the current plans that are in place right now have been effective, at least to some point?
Oyler: At this point, they're really in their infancy and just starting. We just, in the last few months, approved the budget dollars that are going to some of these programs. So now it's really going to be in the next year to two years as we see things play out. There's a lot of work to do here.
You recently voted against the 2023 budget revisions. What did you oppose about those revisions?
Oyler: A couple of concerns I had, first of all starts with: the initial proposal showed spending over $1 million more than we were actually going to take in — and I know by state law, it says if you have the difference in reserves, then it's considered a balanced budget. But to me, that's not a balanced budget when we're spending a record $265 million, but we are going to spend more than we're actually going to take in. A normal budget for us is, give or take $200 million, and with the COVID recovery funds, we're spending a significant amount of tax dollars, and I just can't support something that couldn't be equal.
Then in the end, the final revision was to put off paying a $1 million bill a couple of months to make it look like we flushed that out as an even number, and that's not a solution to me, either. I appreciate the efforts of some fellow council members to try and get those two numbers in line, the revenue and the expenses. But saying that we're going to delay payment on a bill to do that and hit this record $265 million, I couldn't support.
Another issue I had with the budget was, essentially we're now growing the Diversity and Inclusion Department. It started out as an approval a few years ago of creating a job for one person, and in the couple of years that we've had it, no one's ever come to me to say that there's a shortage of resources, we can't get the work done that we need; we need to add another person.
The sales pitch on this was that we're paying someone a department head salary that doesn't have a department, so now we need to hire another staff member for them. I absolutely couldn't support that, and I've voiced that during the budget (discussion) as well. I have folks come to me from staff and the public on a daily basis and tell me that we don't have enough people when it comes to police, community development, legal. Those are the places that if we need to hire staff, they need to go — not to create a department that no one's ever discussed with me has a shortfall.
So what do you see as the biggest fiscal responsibilities or priorities for the city?
Oyler: It's going to be pensions. Without dealing with pensions, we're going to fall flat on our face in a couple of years. That brick wall is still coming, even though all of this recovery money from the state and federal government related to COVID has kind of, in my opinion, put it in the back of people's minds because now there's all this money that we didn't have before. But as soon as that well of money runs dry, we're going to be right back to the same problems that we were talking about a couple of years ago.
A few years ago, we were cutting staff at significant levels because we couldn't afford the pension obligations that we had in front of us that grow at about $2 million a year in payments. Then all of a sudden, COVID came and we started getting the COVID assistance money. So, the budget grew and all of a sudden the problem kind of went away. Well, we're going to be right back there in the future and then we'll be right back to talking about what staff needs to be cut or what infrastructure we can't fix because of the pensions. It really concerns me that it's not getting the priority attention that it needs to be.
How would you assess the performance of City Manager Patrick Urich?
Oyler: The city manager and I have a very good working relationship. Obviously, there's been challenges and there's things that we disagree on, especially in the last year or two — and I’ve discussed that publicly as it related to the handling of the S-Net and the trademark as it related to that and lack of information that was shared with the council. But on a day-to-day operations, when it comes to budget he's very effective in dealing with the budget and we work well together on our one-off weekly challenges. But there's always room for improvement and I’m vocal in sharing that.
Not long ago, the city put out a survey to the public about what kind of cannabis regulation it would like to see as far as with dispensaries and things of that nature. Where do you stand on cannabis businesses in the city, and your position on potentially on-site consumption?
Oyler: I initially had some concern when they first started coming online, especially as it related to neighborhoods, and I voted “no” on some of the earlier establishments. But as it's rolled out, I've seen that it really hasn't been an issue as it comes to the business being up against neighborhood use. I do have concerns with the health impacts of it and what the long-term effect is there. But right now it's a business trying to operate a business, and I think the government needs to not get too terribly involved in it.
It hasn't affected us from a crime or neighborhood concern standpoint, and that was my main concern going into it. I'm open to the discussion of on-site consumption; we really haven't had that discussion yet. There were comments around the council that seemed like a majority didn't support it, but I really didn't weigh in on that. I'm kind of watching to see how everything unfolds over time here and what some of the neighboring municipalities choose to do with it. Obviously, West Peoria is going to have on-site consumption; it may already be open and so we'll see how that plays out. But I haven't seen the challenges that I think initially concerned me. I think that capping the number (of dispensaries) for now, and giving it a few years to see how everything works out is a favorable thing to do. But it's just something we'll have to continue to monitor.
Following up on that on-site consumption issue, as you said, several people around the horseshoe did say that they were not in favor of it even though the survey seemed to overwhelmingly support it. Is that a kind of an odd combination, when the public seems to favor it one way but the council does not?
Oyler: I kind of thought it does. I mean, that happens in many cases. As we evaluate the information that we have, the public doesn't have all of the information that we have. That's why, obviously, we're elected to do these roles: it’s to do the homework and then come back with what the best solution is. But I haven't seen the research that says that this is a real issue that we should come heart out against, for sure — which is why I say I'm open to continuing this discussion and evaluating what the best fit is here, when the public specifically says that they support it.
I know you are happy to see BioUrja invest in Peoria by taking over the former Hiram Walker plant. Obviously, there was an incident there over the summer, but how do you see BioUrja’s presence here benefiting the city?
Oyler: Long term, they're going to have what appears to be a very significant impact on our local economy here. They want to invest what looks like about a half a billion dollars into that facility and expanding product offerings that they have coming out of it, finding more ways to be energy efficient. I think they're really going to be a good community partner for us in Peoria. They've taken responsibility for challenges that they've had getting started. They've been working closely with us, and I've been in many meetings with them and facilitated them with the city, trying to work through some of the startup issues that they've had and get through some of the resource barriers that they've had. It's going to be, I think, great growth for us and good economic investment.
You mentioned your work as a real estate agent. What trends are you noticing in the housing market in Peoria? And how can the city address its need for more affordable housing to reverse the trend of declining population?
Oyler: Our biggest challenge there as it comes to declining population that I feel that we're seeing is a couple of neighborhoods that are really deteriorating. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion that we've had here, some of these neighborhoods need a lot of attention and we need a bigger, broader viewpoint of how do we turn a neighborhood around. When you don't have quality, affordable housing, the neighborhood just significantly deteriorates, and as I mentioned earlier, addressing one house in a neighborhood where multiple are deteriorating doesn't make that neighborhood a good investment.
I have a monthly meeting with a landlord group that tries to brainstorm solutions to neighborhood issues, and we're going to be having another meeting in January with community development to talk about some ideas that maybe help start to turn some of the neighborhoods around. By and large, I think we have a very effective code enforcement department and neighborhoods that really care about each other and keeping neighborhoods in good condition. But the south end, the North Valley, the East Bluff, they need a lot of infrastructure investment and attention, and we need to start coming up with some creative ideas to address that.
How optimistic are you for the future of Peoria and the direction the city's headed?
Oyler: I think it's exciting. I think we have a lot of opportunities and I wouldn't be doing this otherwise. I'm a huge cheerleader for the City of Peoria. I think it's a great place to live and do business. It's exciting to see the changes that are occurring all over our community, with new investment and OSF renovating their new headquarters downtown, expansion of the Cancer Center that's coming. Other businesses like Natural Fiber Welding investing here and expanding (and) we've got some smaller business start-ups happening. I think that the jobs will grow and we've got a very optimistic future. We just need people with a solid vision and a path forward for our community and leadership that's really hands on and engaged.