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Q&A: Peoria City Manager Urich discusses pipeline, co-responder pilot program, gunshot detection

Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich visited WCBU to discuss a potential carbon capture pipeline, the status of the police department's mental health co-responder pilot program, continued use of a gunshot detection service, and other topics.
Joe Deacon
Peoria City Manager Patrick Urich visited WCBU to discuss a potential carbon capture pipeline, the status of the police department's mental health co-responder pilot program, the continued use of a gunshot detection service, and other topics.

Peoria city leaders continue to have questions and concerns about the possibility of a carbon capture pipeline connecting to the BioUrja plant on the South Side.

The topic was discussed at the most recent city council meeting, and City Manager Patrick Urich notes the federal government has dedicated a lot of money in the form of incentives for companies to control their carbon dioxide emissions.

Urich says some council members are adamantly opposed to a pipeline, while others want to hear more about the merits.

In his latest monthly interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Urich also says it’s unclear whether the city has any legal authority to block a potential carbon capture pipeline.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

At the last city council meeting, there was a presentation on the potential carbon dioxide pipeline running from the BioUrja plant on the Illinois River. What is your sense of the city council’s position on this?

Patrick Urich: Well, I think that there’s certainly some strong feelings on the city council about this. There are certainly some members of the council that are adamantly opposed to any type of pipeline in the city. There are others that are more measured in their response and really want to have a discussion about the merits of the pipeline. Obviously, this is something that the federal government is advocating; they’re putting a lot of money toward incentives for people (companies) that are emitting a lot of carbon dioxide, to try and capture that CO2 and then sequester it some way, in some fashion.

Here in Illinois, we’ve had a lot on the books about carbon pipelines going back to 2011, and we have been sequestering carbon outside of Decatur since 2009. So, I think that Illinois is one of the states that is really trying to get out in front of this, whether or not the city council wants to be part of that is still up for discussion.

So what can the city council do? I mean, is this something that they can either pass a resolution to block it, or would BioUrja or the pipeline need city council approval?

Urich: That’s a really good question, and it’s a question that we still need to do a little bit more research on, about whether we have any legal authority to impose a moratorium or block it in any way. If they don’t need to cross any parts of city-owned property, they may be able to go forward with this without any approval from the city. So, I think that that’s something that we have to really examine, and as the council takes this up in the future that’s something that we’ll have to look at.

Now, can the city council be a party to the proceedings that go on at the ICC (Illinois Commerce Commission)? Absolutely, and we should. That way we can stay on top of what’s happening, if and when — more likely when — Wolf Carbon Solutions files an application with the ICC saying that they want to run a pipeline through Illinois.

What have the city council members, or yourself, heard about what potential environmental dangers this could pose?

Urich: As we discussed at our policy session, our presentation with the council, what we talked about is that there was a pipeline rupture in Mississippi that required the evacuation of people near the pipeline. There were a number of people that got sick, I think about four dozen people that got sick, from the release. It was kind of a unique geological situation where the pipeline was actually kind of going down a hill, and it ruptured at that point in time.

I think the geography of Illinois is a little bit different than Mississippi. But obviously, it’s a point of concern. It’s a point of concern that’s being raised by the environmentalists about the safety of pipelines, and it really puts the environmental community and the public kind of at — I wouldn’t say “odds” — but at a different perspective than where our federal government is saying that we need to figure out ways that we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. They’re trying to (incentivize) big business to do that, and to think of a different way to capture and sequester carbon.

So what would be the next steps for the city? Is it more of a wait and see situation?

Urich: The next steps for the city are, really, reactive. I mean, in some ways, it’s (that) we’re going to have to wait and see what happens with Wolf Carbon Solutions. If they decide to file that application with the ICC, then we’ll certainly step up and ask to be a part of that proceeding — since we would certainly have a vested interest if they’re going to be coming into Peoria. If the decision is made that they’re not for whatever reason, and they decide there’s not going to be a spur that comes in through the city, then the council will have to decide if they want to continue to weigh in on this because it’s likely that the pipeline will be south of the City of Peoria.

The mental health co-responder program for the police department was supposed to be up and running by now. What is your understanding about why it’s been delayed and when can we expect the program to begin at this point?

Urich: So, the State of Illinois awarded this City of Peoria a little over $3 million for the co-response program. But the money had to go through the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. So the ICJIA wanted to review the budget that the City of Peoria presented to them, and there was some back-and-forth and some discussion between the (Illinois) Criminal Justice Information Authority and the City of Peoria over what that final budget would look like. I’m pleased to report that, now, the state has signed off on that budget, and so now we’ll be processing (and) coming to council with the grant application to basically say, “Here’s what we’re going to budget.”

What that is, it’s about $223,000 for staffing. That will include four social workers — or, excuse me, eight social workers. It will include an administrative assistant, a data analyst, as well as a community relations/crime prevention manager, and a manager of the entire program. There is money for travel; there’s money for equipment, about $1 million worth of equipment; $200,000 for supplies; and then $400,000 of contractual services as we work with the hospitals in the area; and then our indirect costs of about $50,000. So that’s where the budget is structured, and we’re looking forward to bringing this for council to have them approve that, so that we can get started work with the program.

So when would that be? When would you bring it to council? And when would the program be up and running?

Urich: We’re going to try and bring it to council as soon as we can, and then we’re going to hopefully have the program up and running by mid-year.

What is the latest on development plans for the former Harrison and McKinley School sites? Since those are city-owned properties, how should development move forward and what is the timeline?

Urich: On my way over here today, I did kind of drive past the McKinley site. It’s nice to see that the school is down, and we’re going to be starting the demolition on the Harrison school site here in the next couple of weeks. I really think what we want to be is very diligent with our planning efforts.

Around Harrison, for example, we’re in discussions right now with the (Peoria) Housing Authority about looking at applying for a Choice Neighborhoods grant. That’s a federal grant that allows for the planning efforts for both public housing and the area immediately around it. There’s a lot of assets around the old Harrison school, from the existing Annie Jo Gordon Learning Center to the public housing — both the existing Harrison Homes, the original Harrison Homes that are in that World War II-era buildings, to the newest Harrison, where we’ve started that new phase of development.

Ideally, as we start to plan in that area, it’s looking at how we can utilize that space to look at improving the housing stock — the public housing stock — with the housing authority and look at getting rid of some of the older units and freshening up that block. That’s something that we really want to do that, as well as looking at what are some of the other community assets. What are the commercial needs we would have in that area? So it’s a planning effort, and what we would be doing is applying for a federal grant to try and get some planning money to work over the next couple of years to plan towards that.

Around McKinley, we’ve had some discussions about potential housing, and that’s something that we’ll continue to look at: how that would fit within the character of the neighborhood. Ultimately, I think that — we had some discussions previously with Pivotal Housing (Partners); they came in have applied for a couple of 9% tax credits that they’re running through the Illinois Housing Development Authority, that council gave their support to two of those projects, and there may be a third as time progresses. So (it’s) starting to look at how we can utilize those spaces for housing, but our goal right now is really trying to get the get the properties down and the areas cleaned up.

So what have you heard — I know there’s been a lot of varying degrees of input — on what the biggest needs in those areas are? Green space, senior housing possibly, obviously we’ve talked about affordable housing, commercial properties; there’s so much that could be there. What have you heard?

Urich: Well, I think we’ve heard a lot of that. I think that we’ve heard that housing is certainly a need, improving the quality of the housing stock in the neighborhoods around both of those old schools is really important. We do have a lot of vacant property around the area there, so can we look at some infill development (where) we might be able to look at working with a developer on that front? So those are the kind of elements that we’re looking at, trying to see how that fits. The nice thing about the McKinley School site is it’s close to the MacArthur Corridor, so we have a lot of activity that’s going on right there. We’ll continue to see how we can utilize that space, working with the community to plan out what might come next.

Also, at the last meeting, the council heard an updated presentation on ShotSpotter, which is now rebranded as “Sound thinking.” Do you expect the city to renew its contract for the gunshot detection service, and if so, for how long and at what cost?

Urich: At the April 25 city council meeting, we will have a recommendation coming to the council for a three-year renewal of our ShotSpotter program. It would cover six square miles of the city; it would cost roughly $300,000 a year. As we look at the importance of what that technology does for us, the gunshot detection systems help our police officers ... do their job. It allows them to respond to gunfire in the community faster and more efficiently than what we would do, what we used to do prior to our adoption of ShotSpotter. It makes it significantly easier for police officers to locate where gunfire has occurred, and it’s very important for us to be able to respond as quickly as we can in cases like this. So, I think from the administration standpoint, ShotSpotter is money well spent. It helps our police department to do their job and we hope that the city council will support that.

Are you concerned at all that some communities or some larger communities are considering stepping away from ShotSpotter?

Urich: No. I think that it still helps our police officers to do their job, and we want to make sure that they have the best technology they can to do that.

What benefit will Peoria see from the recently announced Peoria Area Auto Crimes Task Force? What resources will the city need to contribute to this task force?

Urich: So, the Auto Theft Task Force is a four-year, $2.1 million a year grant that’s going to allow the city, the sheriff’s department, the Illinois Secretary of State’s police, the state’s attorney’s office, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, to come together and to partner on trying to address auto thefts in our community. Where our costs (come in), we’re going to have some responsibility for housing the task force, so I think the city is going to have some responsibility there. We’re going to dedicate some staff to work on this program, as well as the state’s attorney’s office will have a dedicated prosecutor that will oversee those cases. We’ll be coordinating with the Secretary of State Police and the sheriff’s department.

But I think it’s really important that as we’ve seen an uptick in auto thefts in the region, that we’re seeing that this is a multi-jurisdictional approach to try and address auto thefts in the region. I think it’s an acknowledgement from the state that the best approach to take in these efforts is to have a task force that’s multi-jurisdictional that can work across both the state, federal and local levels in order to make sure that we’re addressing these issues.

Last week was National Community Development Week. How does Peoria compare with other similar communities and its community development efforts?

Urich: I think that we have an amazing Community Development Department. Director Joe Dulin, assistant director Leah Allison and the teams that they have, that they lead. They’re responsible for not only planning in and looking at how our community grows and develops. They’re responsible for building safety; we have a phenomenal building safety division that makes sure that buildings are built to code and they’re built safely in our community. We have a really responsive and amazing code enforcement team that goes out in the community and make sure that they’re addressing not only environmental issues — such as tall grass or weeds — but that they’re also focused on housing stock, and working with not only property owners, but landlords and tenants, on making sure that housing in our community is safe.

One other element of the team is we have a very robust grants management team. We get a lot of federal money that comes in, and we’ve been able to be very aggressive at trying to get other federal grants and other monies that come in. So, we have a grants management team that manages and oversees that process. We move probably $2.5 million a year of housing dollars, homelessness dollars, and Community Development Block Grant dollars out into the community to ensure that we’re helping Peoria and the neighborhoods in Peoria to be stronger. So, community development is an important part of what the city does; they’re an integral part of the team. They’re trying to make our neighborhoods more livable, more safe, more clean. We really can’t do that without having the phenomenal team that we have, led by director Dulin.

If I’m not mistaken, is there some legislation that’s coming up regarding community development?

Urich: One of the areas that we did create this past year is a land bank, so we have the Peoria County Land Bank that’s working through the city. Some of the areas that we’ve been working at, we’ve been working with the Chicago Community Trust, our friends and partners in Rockford, in Decatur, in Chicago, and in Kankakee — and what we’ve been working at is to really look at legislation that can change our tax sale process that we have in Illinois.

When properties don’t pay your property taxes, after so many years they end up going to what’s called the “tax sale,” and that’s where people will buy your taxes, pay the taxes off. Then they make money on you having to pay back your taxes over time, you have to pay it now with some interest. So the process has been challenging because there’s ways that those tax buyers can file what’s called a “sale in error.” If there’s been some technical problem, where then they can basically get their money back and the property will stay there and languish for an additional three or four years without ever being turned over.

So what we’ve been trying to do, working with this group, is to try and collaborate on making some changes to that legislative process that would address vacant and banding abandoned properties, to really limit the number of properties that can be returned under that “sale in error” statute, and try and make sure that we get those properties back on the tax rolls, which is what we’re really trying to do, or find a new buyer for the properties where we can. So, we’ve been working that process through; it’s kind of a heavy lift in Springfield, but our Community Development Department, as well as the representatives from, like I mentioned, Rockford, Chicago, Kankakee, and Decatur, have been working to try and make some changes to this legislation. We’re still cautiously optimistic that it’s going to move forward.

Election Night was earlier this month, of course, and there were two at-large council members who did not seek reelection. So we’ll obviously have two new council members in Bernice Gordon Young and Mike Vespa. When does the new council actually take its place?

Urich: The new council installation meeting will be on May 2, the first Tuesday in May. So the outgoing council will open the meeting up. There will probably be a couple of agenda items on that evening, some acknowledgement of the service of councilwoman (Beth) Jensen and councilman (Sid) Ruckriegel. At that point in time, the meeting will then adjourn. Then they’ll take a break, people will leave the chambers, new people will come into the chambers. We’ll convene the meeting and then we’ll have the swearing in of our two new city council members and then the new city council will be seated. Then their first regular meeting will be on May 9.

It may be too early to tell, but how do you anticipate the new council makeup may change how things go?

Urich: I’m excited for the new council members. We’ll have an orientation with them this week, where we’ll be sitting down and in talking with them in anticipation of their being sworn in as newly elected officials. Our goal as staff is to try and get them up to speed with a lot of the policy issues and really where things are in the city as quickly as we can, so that they can step in and start to take on their role as a policymaker.

Every time that you see a new council seated every two years — there have been changes to the city council as long as I’ve been here — I look forward to working with a new council. Certainly we’re going to miss councilman Ruckriegel and councilwoman Jensen; they’ve served with distinction for the city and I’m sure that we’ll see them in the community going forward. But I am looking forward to working with this new council as well.

You mentioned that the ShotSpotter, the Sound Thinking contract will come up at the next council meeting. What other items up for discussion or vote are key on the next agenda?

Urich: So looking ahead, we’ve got the text amendment changes that we had discussed about cannabis will be coming forward, those are the zoning changes that we were discussing. At our Planning and Zoning Commission (meeting), we brought those forward to the Planning and Zoning Commission (and) they took issue with one of the items that the city council had directed staff to come forward with. That was, they feel that that there should be cannabis businesses in the Warehouse District. The council had said they didn’t want them, so I have a feeling that will be part of the discussion when we get to the city council on (Tuesday).

We have, this time of year as we start to gear up for construction season and we’re working through that process, we have a lot of contracts for culvert replacements and materials and paint. We will have a jurisdictional transfer of Glen Avenue, the section of Glen that we’ve been working on with the county. We have an agreement with the county that goes back to 1966 that when the county builds a road to city standards, the city takes over jurisdiction of it. So, that’s where you’re seeing fewer and fewer county highways inside the city of Peoria, as we’re slowly working our way through that process. I can say that when I was county administrator, 15 years ago, that was something that we always tried to push is trying to make those improvements to those county highways in the city and transfer those over to the city for their maintenance and care of the roads at that point in time.

If you say there’s a kind of difference between the zoning commission and the city council on cannabis businesses in the Warehouse District, where does that come to a head? I mean, does the city council ultimately have the final say?

Urich: City council has the final say, so I have a feeling I know which way this is going to go.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.