DECATUR — City leaders plan to introduce a new civilian position, community liaison officer, to the Decatur Police Department in the coming months as a response to budget pressures and increased pension costs.
Discussion of the new position came on an already busy night for the council, which on Monday took major steps toward neighborhood revitalization efforts with moves to join a regional land bank and demolish seven dilapidated properties.
Council members and City Manager Scot Wrighton indicated that the council approved of the idea during a "strategic planning retreat" held several months ago. But Councilman David Horn on Monday raised questions about how the position would affect the department's response times and overall staffing levels, and said that details of the change had not been made clear to the public.
“What we’re talking about is a decrease in the overall number of sworn officers or civilians in the department right now,” Horn said.
Four community liaison officers will start Jan. 1, handling administrative work and potentially answering low-level, non-violent calls, officials said. City leaders previously said they would consider shifting some clerical duties to civilian positions because of skyrocketing costs for public safety pensions, a problem for municipalities across Illinois.
City records show that there were 145 sworn police officers at the end of August. Horn noted that the council had included funding for 153 officers in its 2019 budget and said reducing the number of officers and adding community liaison officer positions might have an impact.
“The issue is right now, we’re 5% below the number officers that we said we were at,” Horn said. “Even if these CLOs were to come online tomorrow we would still be short the number of officers.”
Wrighton said the city had experienced several "significant payouts" of $50,000 to $60,000 in severance to officers who had retired, and that affected the budget. "To account for that without going over budget, we have rather transparently allowed the number of sworn officers to dip," he said, "in part to balance the budget and also to anticipate the bringing on of community liaison officers that we discussed earlier."
Horn cited Decatur Police Department documents that show response times for priority 2 and 3 calls — those in which there is no imminent threat to life or large-scale major felony in progress — are the longest they’ve been in the past five years. “I’m wondering at what point in time would a reduction in the number of police officers influence response times,” he said.
Wrighton said the community liaison officers could potentially help with response times. “I actually see the introduction of these community liaison officers as potentially not only helping us financially but also helping us on response time of some of these lower-priority calls,” Wrighton said.
Speaking after the meeting, Police Chief Jim Getz said the officers would be handling low-level, non-violent calls.
“A burglary that happened two or three days ago and there is no suspect around, we could have that officer take that call,” he said. “Things like that, very low-level where we could free up a sworn officer to handle the more dangerous and demanding calls.”
Getz said city and police department have talked about the possibility of creating the position for about six months. He said duties would include completing administrative work and answer certain calls. Details of what the training will consist of are still in the works, but it will likely involve education in report writing and criminal law among other concepts, he said.
"I think it’s important to also say that this is something of an experiment," authorized by the council, Wrighton said. "And so because it’s an experiment we’re proceeding carefully." He said sworn officer staffing would not drop below the current level until city leaders see how the experiment works.
The council also voted unanimously, with Councilman Pat McDaniel absent, to join the Central Illinois Land Bank headquartered in Vermilion County. Council members for the past few years have discussed the idea of a land bank as a way to improve core Decatur neighborhoods, but they have not pursued concrete action until now. The concept earlier this year was included on a list of 36 strategies that could be applied to the goal of neighborhood revitalization.
The Central Illinois Regional Land Bank currently serves over 15 municipalities throughout Vermilion and Champaign counties and recently took on Rantoul and St. Joseph. The land bank is funded by the Illinois Housing Development Authority. Officials have said the agency is more likely to award grant funding to regional land banks rather than those serving lone municipalities.
Nicki Fioretti, director of community affairs for IHDA, previously told the Herald & Review that joining a regional land bank might be more useful than creating a new one because of cities will have access to a pool of resources and knowledge.
Council members voted 6-0 for a $60,000 contract with Clancy Coleman Excavating to demolish seven properties throughout the city. According to the council packet, the properties were the first of approximately 50 properties to be demolished, having cleared a legal and environmental review.
A combined group discount provided a savings of $1,830 over individual bids, according to city documents. An official start date for the demolitions is to be determined, Wrighton said.
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Members of the public raised concerns about the process of the demolitions, asking the council about the basements of the houses and how they are handled. Susan Kretsinger, the city’s neighborhood inspection administrator, said the basements are typically filled with concrete.
Jim Spaniol, member of Sustain Our Natural Areas (SONA), said it is important for the council to think about the soil.
“There are different characteristics for different kinds of soils and those characteristics influence not only what plants are able to grow there but also things you might be interested in like engineering properties of the soil,” Spaniol said. “What kinds of buildings you can build there and what kind of foundations can be done.”
City leaders for years have struggled to address vacant, abandoned properties throughout Decatur's core neighborhoods, particularly those with out-of-state owners who can be hard to track down. There are nearly 200 properties on the list, some of which were identified as a safety hazard in 2012. Progress slowed in recent years due to a lack of funding, but city leaders have said that new funding, including through the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, has made more demolitions possible this year.
“It is very good to see the city of Decatur is making progress on the demolition of these dilapidated houses,” said Horn, who has advocated for faster progress on the city's neighborhood revitalization efforts. “Even with 26 demolitions that we have done to date, that is more than we have done within several years but it comes within the context that the city is not making progress at the speed relative to some of the blight that we are seeing.”
Authorizations for additional demolitions are scheduled for council action in October.
The city earlier this year received a $500,000 state grant with the help of Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, to assist Mueller Water Products Co. with a planned capital improvements project on West Eldorado Street.
The grant is one of many incentives in a package of assistance the city is making available so that capital improvements and job expansion can occur at both of Mueller's Decatur locations: a water products foundry on East Garfield Avenue and a future foundry under construction on North Jasper Street. The city has already adopted an agreement with the state governing how the funds will be distributed.
Also on Monday, the council voted 6-0 to hire Sangamo Construction Company to repair the West Main Street bridge over Stevens Creek. The company had the lowest bid for the work at $130,351, 4.38% under an engineer's estimate, according to city documents.
During a 2017 city inspection of the 29 bridges throughout Decatur, the bridge showed signs of erosion that exposed the steel piles that support the east and west ends of the bridge. The piles appeared to have significant rusting. Public Works Director Matt Newell said the area needed attention.
According to city documents, the overall condition of the West Main Bridge is good and the bridge is safe for traffic but it is necessary to repair the damaged piles and keep them from further corrosion.
The work will be funded in full through state motor fuel tax. Newell previously told the Herald & Review that Decatur typically receives $2 million in state motor fuel tax revenue and they expect to see an estimated 60 percent increase due to the tax increase enacted by state lawmakers earlier this year.
Other city projects recently were allocated state motor fuel tax funding including the Brush College Road improvement project and a right-of-way project at 3915 Faries Parkway.