DECATUR — City council members unanimously approved demolition contracts for four properties, part of a plan to raze 47 abandoned homes by February.
Officials say the demolitions are part of city's neighborhood revitalization effort, meant to target blight and sinking property values in Decatur's central residential areas. Since Dec. 1, city officials have contracted out 28 demolitions.
City staff identified eight additional demolition contracts Monday night that did not need council approval because they cost less than $20,000.
The four homes that will take between $24,000 and $36,000 to demolish require expensive asbestos removal procedures that cost at least double the actual razing of the homes.
City officials say they have now secured 28 home demolitions since November, some of which crews have already completed. It's a significant uptick after city demolitions fell to a trickle in recent years due to lack of funding.
"Twenty-eight properties in the grand scheme of the number of properties that need to be taken down may not seem like a lot, but it's a marked improvement from where we were," Interim City Manager Billy Tyus said.
City Councilman David Horn, who along with Illinois Department of Human Services employees Jacob Jenkins is challenging incumbent Julie Moore Wolfe for mayor in the April 2 election, continued to pressure his colleagues that more money needed to be dedicated to demolitions in order for the city to realize noticeable gains for the effort.
Citing city staff reports, Horn said between 2005 and 2008, the city averaged approximately 70 demolitions a year, and in the last three years that fell to seven a year.
In addition, Horn said, city inspectors have identified more than 300 homes as unfit for human habitation, many of which have not gone through the legal process to get onto the city's demolition list.
Just in December,"the city boarded up 14 houses and there were 22 houses that were declared unfit for human habitation," Horn said. "Compliments to the city for removing another dozen houses tonight, but we need to at least keep pace with the ones boarded up and being declared unfit for habitation."
Councilman Pat McDaniel followed Horn's comments by saying everyone in the city was aware more demolitions were needed, but the problem remains finding the necessary funding to get it done.
Moore Wolfe pointed out that city officials have also tackled expensive demolitions of much larger buildings recently, like the former Aaction Warehouse that burned down in a 2015 fire and more recently the Decatur Public Library annex building.
"We've had some major demolitions that were extremely expensive," Moore Wolfe said. "Staff was able to come up with some pretty creative means to cut the costs on those but those can throw a huge hole in crimp in any budget we have to take down these buildings."
Aside from demolitions, it's unclear what city officials will tackle next under its neighborhood revitalization initiative. Incoming City Manager Scot Wrighton said at a news conference two weeks ago he was already well aware of the council's desire to continue its neighborhood revitalization effort, but it's unclear how a new administration might shape the initiative.
Tyus, who has served as the city's point person in the neighborhood revitalization effort, announced earlier this month that he will leave in February to become deputy city manager in Bloomington. His last day working for the city of Decatur will be Feb. 6,
Moore Wolfe announced at Monday night's meeting that Wrighton's official first day on the job will be March 19. Following the meeting, she said the council was still working on who will fill the position on an interim bases between Tyus' departure and Wrighton's starting date.
In other business on Tuesday, council members unanimously approved a transfer of $175,000 from elsewhere in the city's coffers to replenish the Olde Towne TIF fund, which is tied to a tax incentive program meant to spur development for a swath of central Decatur that covers an area from downtown to much of the Millikin University campus to the west.
City officials said the transfer became necessary after the Macon County treasurer did not distribute property tax money to local governments in December, as had occurred in the past.
The later-than-expected payments from the county led to a citation from auditors for a negative cash balance in one of the city's funds.
Tyus said the gap in available money will not cost the city in its repayment of bonds that were sold for the $14 million downtown streetscape project launched in 2011, and the city received its property tax money from the county on Monday. Tyus also said the issue will not affect Decatur's credit rating.
The city of Decatur is one of the many local government entities in Macon County, from the village of Forsyth to the Argenta Sanitary District, that receive property tax money from the treasurer's office three times a year.
Macon County Treasurer Ed Yoder told the Herald & Review in a phone interview that while his office is usually able to send out checks to local governments before the end of the year, state law gives him 30 business days after the county's tax sale to do so. This year, Macon County's tax sale fell on Nov. 19 and various holidays pushed the county's deadline well past Dec. 31, Yoder said.
"I wasn't trying to put it to the last possible day, it just took a lot of time to get that stuff ready," Yoder said. "I wasn't trying to put (local governments) off in any way."
When asked if city staff could have better prepared for the fund shortfall before the end of the year by reaching out to Yoder's office, Tyus said they did.
"We did check regularly, we had ongoing conversations with the office through December," the interim city manager said. "It was nearing the end of the month when we knew for sure that we wouldn't be receiving the disbursements."
Yoder confirmed that he was contacted several times in December by city staff asking about the status of the payment.
Tyus said during the meeting that the city did not mean to knock county officials for the situation and that city staff have a strong working relationship with county offices.
"If we know that we're not going to receive funds by the end of the year, we want to make every effort to do something like this (transfer) prior to the end of the year," he said.
Yoder said he believes there are communication issues between his office and the city.
"I don't think we have real good communication with the city," he said. "It just seems to be lacking to me."