A Q&A With Patrick Urich

Manager, City of Peoria
Photography by David Vernon

Patrick Urich oversees the daily functions of the City of Peoria, including a budget of nearly $190 million, 14 departments and about 650 employees. Bringing two decades of public administration experience to the table, Urich served as Lake County’s assistant county administrator and Peoria County administrator prior to becoming Peoria’s 18th city manager in April of 2011. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in political science from Illinois Wesleyan University, Urich holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Describe your responsibilities and duties as manager of the City of Peoria.
As city manager, I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of city government. It is my responsibility to ensure that the organization acts effectively and efficiently. I am responsible for the enforcement of all ordinances and laws of the city, and in matters of policy-making, to make recommendations to the City Council as necessary. It is also important to keep the Council advised of the financial condition and future needs of the city, to prepare and submit to the Council the proposed annual budget, and to see that city expenditures do not exceed the amounts available for expenditures. Except for the elected city clerk and treasurer, all city department heads report directly to the city manager. In every instance, I strive to protect the best interests and promote the welfare of the City of Peoria.

What is on deck for the City of Peoria this year?
The City of Peoria has recently adopted a strategic plan for 2013, and the City Council has adopted a vision statement for 2028 that gives the organization and the community an indication of what the Council aspires to be. To achieve this vision, the Council has adopted five goals: a financially sound city government; grow businesses; a lively downtown and Warehouse District; a responsive, efficient city government; and smart population growth. To achieve these goals, the City Council has adopted a work plan for themselves and the staff, and it is my responsibility to see that significant progress is made in addressing these issues.

Some of the policy issues include: updating our financial policies to be more responsive to change and adopting a multi-year budgeting system; establishing an internal structure for economic development services while participating in the regional efforts currently underway; establishing a downtown development corporation or entity that will be responsible for downtown economic development; and developing strategies to address vacant and abandoned homes while also planning for growth in the suburban northern part of the city. Some of the management issues include: continuing our efforts to combat crime; completing the internal reorganization plan undertaken in 2011-2012, including the continued use of outsourcing services where appropriate; completing labor negotiations with the fire union and beginning negotiations with the police union; and focusing on neighborhoods by working closely with LISC and continuing to work to make better landlords and tenants within the rental properties of the city.

Moreover, 2013 is also going to be a year of major construction projects. Nearly $25 million of infrastructure investments will be underway in downtown Peoria and the Warehouse District as the Washington Street and TIGER II projects kick off. The Orange Prairie Road extension project will be moving into the next phase, and IDOT will begin work on Allen Road. The arterial street overlay program adopted in 2012 will begin by improving University Street north of War Memorial up to Glen Avenue and south from Forrest Hill to Nebraska.

What is the budget outlook for the next year? Given the cuts made over the last five years, has city government been appropriately “right-sized?”

The City Council has not been shy in dealing with the effects of the Great Recession. It has made significant cuts over the last five years. Even so, for the 2012 budget year, the City of Peoria was facing a structural deficit of more than $9 million. The City Council made the difficult decisions and reduced headcount, offered an early retirement incentive, raised the residential garbage fee, and established a new arterial street overlay program to address the poor condition of the major streets in Peoria. Departments were consolidated, and the organization was restructured. For 2013, the budget built upon the significant changes in the prior year, and the staffing levels of the city are at the lowest they have been in 20 years. However, no major revenue increases were imposed and the budget was balanced.

As we look to 2014, the single largest threat to the financial stability of the City of Peoria is the State of Illinois. Peoria relies upon revenues shared with the state for many of the services we deliver. Furthermore, the decisions made by the General Assembly can affect us dramatically, and it is often from a defensive position that we spend countless hours fighting legislation that would have an adverse impact upon local taxpayers. As the state deals with its fiscal challenges, it is imperative that we watch and work with it closely to ensure that the problem is not passed on to local governments. Second, we will continue to look to outsource services where appropriate. As the cost of public safety and emergency services continues to rise, we will have to look to the private sector to assist the city in the delivery of non-public safety services. Lastly, we will continue to reorganize and improve our business processes to be more efficient. While we may be at our lowest employment levels in two decades, we have to seek continual improvement.

How is your current position different from your former role as county administrator?
The positions of county administrator and city manager are very similar. In a basic sense, both positions work closely with elected policy-making bodies, the County Board and the City Council, and the task is to recommend policy alternatives so they can make the most informed decision in the best interest of the county or city. Once that decision has been made, it is the manager’s responsibility to execute that policy. In order to be effective, a manager must not get involved in political activity. If a professional manager were involved in local politics, it would undermine the confidence in the professional position. That doesn’t mean that professional managers do not understand politics or the environment, it means that one must be politically astute, not politically active.

City and county governments are different from one another. The county is an administrative arm of state government. Criminal justice, corrections, public health, veterans’ assistance, the regional office of education, the property tax administration system, and the county and township road network all have a regional perspective. Many back office functions are quite similar, such as human resources, finance and information technology services. The city delivers services to a large number of people living very close to one another, so many services are more intimate. Code enforcement services, law enforcement, fire protection services, trash collection, street light maintenance and snow plowing all take on a heightened sense of importance within city government.

But the major difference is economic development. Unlike counties, municipalities in Illinois have a greater reliance upon sales and utility taxes to finance operations. Therefore, it is critical that the city focuses its efforts on growing the tax base as much as possible. Furthermore, with Peoria being the largest city in the region, growing downtown and the Warehouse District is essential to the city’s long term growth. As city manager, I have spent considerably more time on economic development than I did as county administrator.

How has your extensive experience with the county helped in your capacity as city manager?
The experience as county administrator was invaluable. Many of my peers have to relocate to new communities when assuming a new position, and then spend months struggling to gain an understanding of their new community. I literally moved my office from the courthouse to City Hall, and never lost contact with many of the people in the community that I have worked closely with since coming to Peoria. I have lived in Peoria since 2001, so as a resident, I understood many of the issues that the city was facing. I also feel that I have an understanding of county government that many city managers never gain. Relationships, both personal and professional, are critical to being successful in any position, and I feel that I have been able to build upon them here in Peoria.

Describe some of the ways in which Peoria County and the City of Peoria can share or consolidate services. What have been some of the successes in cooperation?
Both the City of Peoria and the County of Peoria have cooperated for many years. In fact, in my office I have a picture of the proposed city/county building from 1946, showing that cooperation has been discussed in one form or another for nearly 70 years! To institutionalize these efforts, the City/County Cooperation Committee has renamed itself the Metro Peoria Committee and has established a website: metropeoriagov.com.

A number of intergovernmental and more informal agreements already existed between the city and county prior to the establishment of Metro Peoria, including mutual aid agreements, oversight of the city/county landfill, Geographic Information System services, and joint purchasing. Metro Peoria, however, has been able to quantify all such agreements in a city-county cooperation matrix. Metro Peoria has also been able to transform many of the informal agreements into formal ones with approval from policymakers from both units of government. One example is an intergovernmental agreement for traffic signal maintenance and pavement striping services on county roads. In addition: Peoria County is now able to utilize the city's fuel facilities; Peoria County will conduct bridge inspections for the City of Peoria; and a fiber optic line has been installed between City Hall and the County Courthouse to allow for more efficient information sharing.

However, the most positive example of cooperation has been the establishment of a uniform restaurant license. Prior to the adoption of a uniform license, the City of Peoria had difficulty collecting restaurant tax proceeds from a few delinquent establishments. The previous regulations did not include strong enough penalties to influence these restaurant owners to pay taxes due to the city, even though the taxes had already been collected from customers. The new intergovernmental agreement includes a process to address this issue; the Health Department now has the authority to deny renewal of an establishment's annual public health food safety license if that establishment is not in compliance with its restaurant tax payment. This agreement has resulted in $45,000 in delinquent taxes paid to the City of Peoria for the 2012 tax period.

What are some future shared service initiatives?
The city and county are working on improving neighborhoods in the city. The city is requesting the county incorporate the unpaid and overdue fines and fees into a property owner's real estate tax bill in lieu of placing a lien on the property. When the tax bills go out for 2013, more than 250 properties will have their liens attached to the property tax bill for payment. If successful, other services such as the residential garbage fee may be placed on the tax bill in order to improve collections and ensure compliance.

Previously, the city and county contracted for economic development services with the Economic Development Council. Now, the city and county are working with other local municipalities, jurisdictions and business development organizations on a more regional effort to attract new business and retain existing business in central Illinois. The revitalized economic development efforts go far beyond the two units of government that comprise Metro Peoria and culminate in the Focus Forward CI group, to which both the City of Peoria and Peoria County belong.

Peoria County adopted an internal sustainability plan in 2011 that addresses six elements related to the everyday operations of the county and its facilities. At the urging of the Metro Peoria Committee, the city will adopt a similar plan, using the expertise of the county. In addition, the two units of government will expand on these internal initiatives to address some of the sustainability needs of the community through the mayor’s Sustainability Commission.

How did the recent recession impact the general sense of urgency for combining services?
The recession added a sense of urgency, but in many ways, the renewed focus came from the PASS Forward Committee—the group of business and community leaders that met to discuss ways that the city and county could further their cooperation efforts.

Describe the difference between the "uni-gov" concept and the functional approach to consolidating city/county services.
There is a continuum of consolidation services. At one end are items like equipment sharing, joint purchasing and mutual aid. These are the everyday efforts that do not make headlines, but are the basics of cooperation. Next would be functional consolidation. This is when one unit of government delivers services for the other. For example, the city provides dispatching services to the county because the city has a large dispatch center and taking on the county’s smaller call volume was not going to be overly burdensome. The county takes all arrestees of the city and holds them in jail until they are arraigned, saving the city from maintaining holding cells. Instead of spending funds back and forth, the city and county have agreed to barter these services, providing additional savings. A fee for service arrangement is one in which one unit of government pays for the services of another. Animal control services are maintained by the county, and the city pays for the service. The next phase on the continuum is shared services. The City and County of Peoria own the landfill and have for more than 25 years, ensuring that Peoria County residents have affordable waste disposal options. Lastly is the “uni-gov” concept. This is the true consolidation of governments, thus taking two entities and making them one.

Historically, what have been the biggest obstacles in getting the city and county governments to work together?
Trust. In order to effectively cooperate, let alone integrate or consolidate services, the two bodies must trust one another. If there is any sense of distrust between the two entities, the efforts will be severely challenged. I will not say that all of the trust barriers have been removed between the city and county. But over time, with incremental successes, there will be better cooperation between both entities.

What are some examples of city/county government cooperation around the country that you have looked at as a model?
There are many examples of city and county government cooperation that we have reviewed. Most consolidation efforts are voted on by the citizens. Interestingly, most fail when presented as an opportunity to save money. When an effort is centered on economic development, speaking with a unified economic voice in the region, the efforts are most successful. Louisville/Jefferson County was a recent example of consolidation for largely economic development efforts. Very few efforts are mandated by the state. Indianapolis/Marion County was one example of a consolidation effort established by legislation and not voter-approved. The more successful efforts that we have looked at are those centered on cooperation, not consolidation. Reno/Washoe County and San Antonio/Bexar County are regions we have examined.

What has been your involvement in the Focus Forward CI economic development initiative?
The City of Peoria has been closely engaged in the Focus Forward CI initiative. City Economic Development staff have been participating in the Technical Working Group. Council members Eric Turner and Chuck Weaver and I are on the Steering Committee. Along with Peoria County Administrator Lori Luther and Tazewell County Administrator Michael Freilinger, I have assisted with the Budget Committee. This regional economic development effort is critical, the goals are measurable and timely, and the momentum is there.

Just as the efforts are underway to improve regional economic development service delivery, we are working to develop a better approach to economic development services within the city. The departments of Economic Development, Inspections, and Planning and Growth Management have been consolidated into one Community Development Department. We are hiring key positions within Community Development, including an assistant director with a focus on economic development. We have established a new development center within City Hall to improve service delivery. Staff has been diligently reviewing ordinances with the goal of simplifying our business processes. The goal over the next year is to ensure that the regional and city economic development efforts are aligned and complementary.

The City Council’s strategic plan is centered on economic development. Growing our population, creating a climate for business growth, and strengthening downtown and the Warehouse District are critical to the growth of the city. The Downtown Advisory Commission is reviewing structures to assist in supporting downtown economic development. City staff is examining the use of business improvement districts (BIDs) for many of our commercial corridors. The simple fact is that due to budget constraints, the city will only be able to provide a base level of services throughout the region. BIDs provide enhanced services, such as cleaning streets, providing security, making capital improvements, construction of pedestrian and streetscape enhancements, and marketing the area. These public/private partnerships are common—more than 1,000 exist across the United States—and a best practice Peoria must adopt.

Do you have a personal management philosophy? Who or what has been an influence on you in this regard?
My personal management philosophy has been to lead by example, find the best people for positions within the organization, and give them the support and room to manage their respective departments or functions. I want staff that continually seeks to improve and find new ways of doing things. Unfortunately, risk-taking is not something that is encouraged in the public sector; in many ways, the public sector is risk-averse. It is important for policymakers to be willing to accept a little risk to encourage innovation. David Osbourne, author of Reinventing Government, and Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, have been huge influences in this regard.

I believe strongly in the concept of representative democracy at the local level. The elected policymakers set the course for the government, and it is my role to ensure that their policies are executed as effectively as possible. Strong policy leadership, coupled with strong administrative leadership, can have transformational results. I have been influenced by the county administrators in Lake County that I had the opportunity to work for, Dwight Magalis and Karl Nollenberger. I have also been influenced by each County Board chairman that I have worked with, and Mayor Jim Ardis has been an outstanding policy leader.

What lies ahead for you? Any interest in moving from administration into policymaking?
I am excited to be the city manager. Every day brings a new issue and new challenges and opportunities. For example, the new Caterpillar Visitors Center, Peoria Riverfront Museum, Cancer Center at UICOMP, the nearly completed Jump Trading Simulation Center, the Hotel Pere Marquette project and more than $50 million of new infrastructure show that Peoria continues to grow and expand. It is great to be a part of such an important time in the growth of Peoria.

I have been in Peoria for more than a dozen years. My wife and I have three daughters that were born here, and we call Peoria home. I am proud to be the city manager and hope to remain in the position to continue to make Peoria great. I have no plans to move into a policymaking role. I have great respect for those individuals that put their name on a ballot, but I am committed to being a professional manager. iBi

 


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