Ensuring Progress in Peoria
Although Jim Ardis only has been mayor of Peoria for just over a year, he’s spearheaded some major improvements to the area while in office. Since his initial commitment in 1999 as a councilman-at-large and while he represents us in his term as Peoria mayor, Ardis has struggled to benefit all Peorians—i.e., the majority’s interest—through his votes. He’s a staunch advocate of preserving and improving the older neighborhoods, and has proved this through the several revitalization projects he’s backed up throughout the area. With the help of city council members, he’s fought crime issues head on, and has an intense passion for constantly enhancing the area’s education system.
Ardis understands the importance of progress to the future of Peoria, vowing to give his support to Peoria’s medical, manufacturing, and technological communities, all of which he’s hopeful will create endless job opportunities and growth to central Illinois.
He’s also well regarded for his involvement in the local community: he’s participated in St. Jude’s Memphis to Peoria run for 12 years, is president of the Tim Ardis Foundation for Hope, which educates young people about mental illness early in life, and his family freely gives its time and support to those in need as a Haitian Hearts host family.
He and his wife, Mimi, have three children, all in their teenage years.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I’m the second-oldest of nine children. I attended St. Cecilia’s Catholic grade school in Peoria and was in its last graduating class in 1973. That was also the year of the infamous incident where my brother John was taken hostage. I received my high school diploma from Spalding Insitute, and my college degree (a B.S. in Industrial Technology) from Illinois State University.
Who or what influenced you to enter public service?
My grandfather, John Bulger, was the County Clerk in Peoria for several years and my first model for public service. My grandfather, James Ardis, Sr., was involved in the Shriner’s as well as in his church, St. Joseph’s, and was also a model for public service. My dad, Jim Ardis, Jr., served on the Peoria City Council from 1969 to 1973. Those were very tumultuous years in Peoria and a difficult time to serve on the council. I was only 10 when my father was elected to the council, but I had many opportunities to attend meetings with him, and that was when I first became interested in elected public service. As I grew older, I became active in my church and other civic groups. I was appointed to the Peoria Liquor Commission after I sold O’Leary’s Restaurant in 1997.
What prompted your decision to run for mayor? Were you ever intimidated by the disparity between your campaign funds versus your opponent’s?
After serving with two mayors, I felt I’d observed both of their strengths and weaknesses and had gained enough experience as a councilman-at-large to take the next step. I was never intimidated by the huge disparity in funding in my mayoral race. I felt my grassroots organization had grown large enough to neutralize any potential money obstacles.
You spent six years on the city council, and now you’ve completed one year as mayor. How did your relationship with other council members change?
The relationships have grown and matured with the council members I’d served with previously, and I’ve had an opportunity to get to know our three new council members quite well in the past year. This entire council is comprised of leaders, and it’s a pleasure to be in the leadership position of mayor with such a capable group. The council’s really coming into its own in terms of maturity, and we’re making tough decisions which will hopefully bear fruit in the coming years. I believe our relationships have changed for the better—there’s a better sense of teamwork and respect among council members than at any other time I’ve served in the past seven years.
You emphasized you wanted to concentrate on safety, education, and economic development. Explain the progress in each of these areas.
Our Crime Group has been meeting several times a month for a year. An incredible amount of time and effort has been expended in studying some of the root causes of crime and identifying areas with strong concentrations of crime. Through an arrangement with Caterpillar, we’ve been given the opportunity to partner with its global security partner ADT to build a wireless mesh that’ll help us monitor specific neighborhoods, schools, parks, public housing, and other areas law enforcement deems necessary. This won’t be the answer to the crime issue, but another strong tool in the law enforcement toolbox to help our fight against crime. I’ve also asked the council to prioritize our crime-fighting efforts in our upcoming ’07 budget discussions. I’d like to allocate more dollars into putting law enforcement people on the streets.
I don’t recall a time in my life where the City of Peoria has been as open and willing to assist our local school districts in an effort to provide safe learning environments for teachers and students. The hurdles being experienced in the discussion on placement of new schools in District 150 is hopefully just a blip on the radar. My commitment to education hasn’t faltered. My proposal to name a Mayor’s School Liaison will be forthcoming, as will an opportunity for our business community to help fund this important initiative. More details on this project will be coming very soon.
Our new economic development director is doing an outstanding job and has hit the ground with his feet in high gear. Just look at the cranes downtown and you know we’re experiencing progress in Peoria. The Business Task Force report I requested was released recently by council members Manning and Nichting, businessman Lee Graves, and input from our city staff. This document will allow us to better address the needs of the business community and Peoria to become more customer friendly.
In addition, my call to form a Mayor’s Career for Youth Program has received very strong support from the business community. Councilman Spears is directing this effort along with the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. Our goal is to partner area students with area employers for summer jobs. Nothing’s more important than expecting nothing less than the best education for our children. Our community has to adopt this attitude and work together to realize our potential.
As you enter your second year, what do you hope to accomplish as mayor?
I simply want to continue our successes of the past year. We’re working together in a businesslike fashion. We’re focused, informed, and engaging in courteous debate on the issues. You’re seeing teamwork on all topics. We continue to seek community involvement to achieve the goal of being a safe city with excellent schools and a wide range of job opportunities.
In your opinion, what’s the most pressing issue the council will face this year?
The budget is always the most important and pressing issue a city council faces. There are more than 135 million reasons the budget is important, and the council’s ability to utilize our taxpayers’ investment to receive the highest return on that investment is critical.
How are you able to balance your career, mayoral duties, and family?
Through time management and a sharing family who supports public service. My employer, Univar, has a very strong commitment to the communities in which they do business. Without the support of my superiors, there’s no way I could do both my primary job plus the mayor’s job to the degree necessary to be successful.
And there’s nothing more important in this world than my family. I thank God for my wife and three children every day. Their willingness to share our family time so I have the opportunity to give back to the city and hopefully leave it in better shape than when I took over as mayor is another key to performing this job. Mimi and I are involved with a number of organizations in the area, and we know our example will benefit our children and enforce the importance of contributing your time and talents in the community.
The city has many major projects in the works, depending on public and private contributions. The council often is criticized for making progress difficult. Explain the difficulty each council member has when voting on major projects such as Museum Square, the water company buyout, etc.
If these decisions weren’t important and were without implications to the taxpayers, we wouldn’t be voting on them. And every time we vote on an issue, especially high-profile issues like those you mention, someone won’t be happy with the final vote. It’s a council member’s duty to be fully informed of the issues at hand and cast his or her vote to reflect the feelings of his or her constituents. Criticisms that the council makes it difficult to proceed with a project come for a variety of reasons. Many times a request for taxpayer assistance is more than the council feels is appropriate. Almost every project has value, but the council has the difficult job of deciding what, if any, participation (financial or otherwise) should come from the city.
Overall, I think the council does a very good job of analyzing proposals that come before it. It’s all about priorities, and with 11 council members, there are different opinions on what those priorities should be.
Peoria has a mayor/city manager structure. Explain how your office and the council work together with city manager Randy Oliver.
The city manager is the city’s chief executive officer and the only person hired and potentially fired by the Peoria City Council. All other employees are under the direction of the city manager. It’s the responsibility of the mayor and the council to provide policy direction to the manager. With that direction, the manager’s responsible for the supervision of every city employees and the day-to-day administration of the city government.
Communication is the key to a successful mayor and council/city manager form of government. Technically, the city manager has 11 bosses (mayor plus 10 council members). In order to give the manager clear directives, it’s important for the mayor and council to speak with a unified voice, instructing the manager towards a specific course of action. It’s vital the mayor and manager have a strong relationship for the city to function effectively and efficiently. Mr. Oliver and I continue to build that relationship, and I feel each of our strengths compliment the other’s.
What misperceptions does the general public have regarding public services and the budgeting process, if any, that you’d like to address?
The biggest misperception regarding public services and the budgeting process is that when taxpayers write the checks for their real estate assessments, the City of Peoria receives the majority share of those tax dollars. Quite the contrary, the City of Peoria realizes only about 12 percent of the taxpayers’ dollar. That’s right—we provide your roads, police and fire protection, and additional benefits from our other city departments for only 12 cents of each tax dollar. Take a look at your tax bill and you’ll see I’m right. Other taxing bodies make up 88 percent of your real estate taxes. When people realize the bang they’re getting for their buck, they know they’re getting a strong return on the city portion of their tax bills.
The city is faced with tremendous payroll and pension increases. Explain how this affects the city’s budget.
Over 80 percent of the city budget is tied up in personnel. It takes a lot of people to protect our citizens and maintain our assets, and our employees do an outstanding job. The public constantly calls for more service and want to pay less to get those services done. Elected officials must try to achieve a balance between what we can afford and what our citizens want us to do. Payroll costs, medical and prescription drug and dental programs, as well as pensions are a huge liability on our annual budget. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and compromise with our employees to reach an acceptable, affordable plan that provides fair coverage in line with private employers and at a price the city can afford.
Serious discussions have begun about GASB 45 requirements as they relate to “Post Retirement Benefits” and how we’re now required to establish uniform accounting and financial reporting on benefits other than pensions. Some projections show our liability to fund these benefits at over $81 million dollars. The annual contribution to provide the assets necessary to fund this liability at the end of the valuation period is almost $8 million dollars. That’s $8 million dollars we don’t have in the budget today.
Needless to say, we’ll be required to give serious, thoughtful consideration to how we’re going to fund the Post Retirement Benefits of our employees while keeping your subsidies to local government at a reasonable level.
Of what career accomplishment are you most proud?
I’m proud I’ve gone from being an involved, concerned husband, father, and citizen, to serving on the Peoria Liquor Commission, being elected as an at-large council member twice, and proceeding to the mayor’s office. In my opinion, my election sent a strong message to everyone in our city that it’s possible to be elected and serve in Peoria’s top public office even if you aren’t independently wealthy. For more than 12 years, it was nearly impossible for a person of modest means to be able to wage an effective campaign to become mayor. The issues we raised, the campaign we waged, and the message that we represent a team of everyone who wants Peoria to grow and prosper were all key reasons we were successful.
What do you hope to leave as your mayoral legacy?
I don’t get caught up in thoughts about what my mayoral legacy will be. I feel I was elected to do a job and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. If we’re successful in making Peoria one of the safest cities in the country, making our local schools a model of success, and continuing to establish Peoria as a community on the move in areas of healthcare and innovation as well as maintaining our rank as the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, Peoria’s legacy will be a strong one. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to represent this fine city we call home. IBI
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