Jack Manahan, as county administrator of Peoria County, leads an organization with over 900 employees and a budget of about $57 million, serving 183,000 residents. From 1989 to 1994, he was village manager of Park Forest, Illinois. From 1983 to 1989 he worked for Johnson County, Kansas, an urban county of 400,000 in the Kansas City area, first as assistant director of finance, and later as director of management and budget. Manahan’s early career was that of a musician and concert promoter in the Kansas City area. That was followed by a career in retail management for Montgomery Ward and sales management for Western Auto. He entered the public sector as assistant director of the housing authority in Lawrence, Kansas. He holds a B.S. in education and a Master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas, and has taught and written a great deal about government and financial management.
What is your analysis of the Peoria area after having lived and worked here for almost two years.
I think it has a great deal of potential; it’s a nice place right now. One of the things that impressed us when we came here was that after being in the Chicago area for five years, the area felt like home. There is a diverse population and a fairly diverse economy. There is a university. It felt a lot like Lawrence, Kansas – a Midwestern city. In the Chicago area, there were a half million people just in the south suburbs. Nobody drove the speed limit, nobody stopped for stop signs. This is just a “kinder, gentler area” and we like it a lot.
What are the main challenges you see for this area in your role as county administrator?
Economic development and growth management continue to be the main challenges for the area. By development I mean conscious decisions on the tradeoffs between urban sprawl and more controlled growth – thinking logically about where the community ought to move and working with others to make it happen.
One of the challenges governments have today that perhaps they didn’t have as much 20 years ago is the need to find ways to work together more closely than we have in the past. People these days tend not to see some of the distinctions among units of government. If you look on your tax bill, you will see a whole list of unity of government. When people have problems, they don’t really distinguish which government caused them – it’s government’s problem.
It has been demonstrated that Illinois has more layers of government than almost any state in the union. How is the Peoria area doing in terms of cooperation among governmental bodies?
I think we are doing pretty well. Peoria County has a very good reputation for professional, well-run county government. The list of the awards the county has won from the National Association of Counties runs to something like three pages. We take for granted some very progressive things that have been going on for a long time. For example, governments in other areas are now beginning to think about privatizing their data processing function. Peoria County’s data processing function has been handled by a private firm since the early 1980s. Many people are not away of that. I tell associates from other areas about it and they say “Wow!”
One of the things that impressed me when I interviewed for this job was the level of cooperation that I saw. There is kind of a culture of cooperation in the county government. Perhaps because some of our elected department heads have been county board members, there is a good spirit of cooperation among county departments. We work together well on budgets, labor negotiations, and all sorts of things. I appreciate that.
How have you found labor relations in county government?
I have found them to be good and improving. I think the unions would tell you the same thing. We all have some common interests in making sure the county has a good work force and is able to retain and attract good employees. Our relationships with the unions since I have been here have been pretty good.
Last year we settled four contracts, all settled cordially, and we are currently involved in negotiations with our largest union, which are going very well.
What are some of the key things happening in economic development in the county?
The county has been a partner in the Economic Development Council for the Peoria Area for some time. We have cooperated with them and with the city on a number of programs. We have our gap loan program which loans money to businesses to either start up or expand, to attract or retain jobs. That’s going very well.
The county business park on Maxwell Road across from the county jail is getting off the ground. It’s taken us a long time to get that together, but it is something that hasn’t been done before. We are working with the EDC to develop this piece of ground and it is going very well. Just recently we reached a tentative agreement to sell a couple of the lots at the business park to the first occupant. We are in the process of getting the land platted and the infrastructure planned. We have a tentative commitment for a grant of approximately a half million dollars from the state for some of that infrastructure; that should be announced very soon. That will help us get the project off the ground. The whole area out by the airport, the Bartonville and Bellevue area, is really hot. It’s one of the areas that I’ve been working on in economic development just recently.
We believe the airport’s growth is vital to the whole area. We discovered some months ago that there were some conflicts among possible development plans, the airport’s master plan for expansion, and some IDOT highway plans. We are developing a partnership to finance a multimodal study to look at what needs to happen there. The county and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission have already put some money on the table to get this started and make sure the airport expansion and future highway plans can coexist properly. We have discussed the study with the Sanitary District, and we believe the City of Peoria and the Airport Commission can be persuaded to join us in this effort. Opening up that whole area to the west is very important to not only Peoria County, but to the entire area.
Where does the landfill issue stand?
I think we’ve seen some good cooperation. The city and the county have jointly owned the landfill for a long time and we were recently able to get siting approval for an expansion of the landfill. We have gone out for bids for the developer and operator of the landfill. The bids have just come in and now we have to evaluate them. That’s an area of successful cooperation that the city and county have been involved in for years, although people may not think much about it.
Do you believe the landfill should be publicly owned and privately managed?
One of the things I worked on last fall, along with staff from the city, was to try to get the City Council and County Board to spend some time thinking about what they wanted to see in developing this landfill – what factors were important to them as we developed bid specifications. The worst thing that could happen would be for staff to go off in a vacuum and develop a plan to run up the flagpole and have the County Boar and City Council say, “That’s not what we want; try again.” So we got them to give us, up front, some of their thinking about the relative importance of issues like liability, control of the waste stream, price and price control. We evaluated those, and the staff was able to come up with some tentative conclusions about important issues as we developed the landfill plans.
In February we got the City Council and County Board together for a joint meeting to do the same thing to give the staff direction as we developed the bid specifications for the expansion. Both groups believed that maintaining public ownership of the landfill was important. Both groups were very concerned about minimizing the liability to the city and county. They were concerned about price, but not as concerned about actual price as about the certainty of knowing what the price was going to be in the future. The landfill is a valuable public asset and I believe it should continue to be owned publicly.
What is your perspective on the Peoria-Chicago/Chicago-Kansas City highway?
I think the Peoria to Chicago highway is very important. The county has been very interested in that for a long time. IDOT, of course, felt that the thing to do first was to establish the ring road on the other side of the river. Peoria County had its part of the ring road with I-474 and Route 6. The county is part of that ring road study and I am a part of that study’s advisory group.
Three potential corridors have been laid out for the ring road, and that are looking at the potential impact of each alternative on traffic. The location of the ring road is important. If you locate it too far out, it’s going to be a long time before development takes place, and it may not be utilized as much. If it’s too close in, you’re going through heavily developed areas already, which would be very costly. The best example of that is Houston, Texas. It has a ring road, but it was built too far in and the traffic there is terribly congested because half the city is outside the ring road.
Although a separate Peoria to Kansas City highway probably isn’t going to happen, opening up access to the western part of the state is important, and that’s why we’re planning the multimodal study that I mentioned before.
Peoria County encompasses a large land area outside the City of Peoria. You are the administrator for the whole county. We are all aware of the past and potential city-county conflicts in such issues as annexation, with the city needing to grow but some county residents resisting annexation. How do you handle these issues?
It’s a tough one to talk about. On the one hand, I work for the County of Peoria and I must preface my remarks by saying that these are my personal sentiments. On the other hand, I’m a student of urban government and development and have been for a long time. As you look at some of the things that have happened in development in other areas of the country, you have to be concerned about this issue for the future of the region.
We think we have resolved a number of potential annexation-related conflicts with the City of Peoria through some of the growth and development agreements we have with the city. We have continued to meet with them over the past couple years to chat about these sort of things. We have a sales tax sharing agreement with the city right now for new businesses in growth cell areas, which we believe will eliminate future conflicts like those that surrounded the Willow Knolls development a few years ago.
At the same time, I think we need to realize that people who are citizens of the city of Peoria are also citizens of the county of Peoria. Whether we like to believe it or not, the health of the central city is extremely important to the health of this whole region, including the county of Peoria. You can’t be a suburb of nowhere. The city of Peoria is the economic engine that drives this whole area. If the city of Peoria is not a good place to be – to live and to work – people aren’t going to want to be here. They won’t want to live anywhere in the area, let alone just in the unincorporated area outside the city.
I did some research on this, related to the Medina Hills incorporation issues, and one of the things I learned from some Department of Housing and Urban Development materials was that since 1950 the metropolitan population of America has nearly doubled. But the population density of the countries’ 522 metropolitan areas has been cut in half. What that tells me is that there are some real concerns about land use, density and growth.
What are the ramifications of a Medina Hills incorporation if the November referendum passes?
The financial impact of the West Peoria incorporation on the county – whose budget is supported by all county residents including those in the city of Peoria – was roughly a half-million dollars. That lost revenue was essentially made up by all of the other residents of the county. Our estimates of the potential loss to Peoria Count if the Medina Hills area incorporates is higher; we think it will be $700,000 – $800,000. That should be a concern to all county taxpayers whether they live in the city of Peoria or our in the county.
You have to think about the viability of the central city versus the suburban areas. If you look at places across the country where the central city has been able to grow, these areas have remained healthy, as opposed to areas where the central city has been hemmed in by suburbs.
David Rusk wrote a book a few years ago entitled Cities Without Suburbs. Rusk, who used to be the mayor of Albuquerque, cited Albuquerque and San Antonio as good examples of where the central city in an area has consciously been allowed to grow instead of have that growth take place in suburbs. Take a look at the city of Detroit, which is landlocked by the development of suburbs, on the other hand. Tell me how healthy that whole area is, because it has been surrounded by a hundred suburbs. The Chicago area will always be a mecca for a variety of reasons, so it’s a little different, but I tend to think it may have been healthier had some of the suburbs not developed.
You actually have a little example of this here in Peoria with the Richwoods annexation which took place a number of years ago. If that whole area had not been annexed and incorporated into the city of Peoria, but had become a separate suburb, I think both the county and the city would be a little less healthy than they are right now.
A joke I heard a while back says, “A developer is someone who wants to build houses in the woods, and an environmentalist is someone who has a house in the woods.” There are obvious exaggerations there on both sides, but there’s still a lesson to be learned. I think we have to be careful with what I call the gangplank mentality which says, “I was on the boat first, let’s pull up the gangplank so you can’t come on.” It’s a real concern.
What are some of the other arguments you might use against the incorporation of Medina Hills?
According to the material I’ve seen from the proponents of incorporation, their fundamental reason for wanting to incorporate is to avoid become part of the city of Peoria. If you look at the map of the boundaries of that proposed municipality, there is a good portion of it that would never be part of the city of Peoria or of any other municipality.
It strikes me that being forced to become part of an incorporation is not terribly different from being forced to become part of the city of Peoria through a forced annexation. There isn’t a whole lot of difference. The Tome area, for example, was included in the proposed new municipality in order to reach 7,500 population, which by statute avoided having to obtain the city of Peoria’s permission for their incorporation. And by the way, when West Peoria, which has a population of less than 7,500, was formed, Peoria did not object to the incorporation.
It’s relatively easy to get something like that on the ballot. They went out and got the signatures, but there were a lot of people up there who had no idea this thing was even an issue until they read it in the paper. But they are included in this incorporation attempt and they don’t want to be. That isn’t a whole lot different in my mind from being forced to annex to the city of Peoria.
The other thing I found interesting was that the material the proponents put out stated that after the incorporation the Rome area could disconnect if they wanted, but they needed their population to be able to incorporate initially. That’s a little disingenuous; yes, they could disconnect but it would take a vote of all the electors of the new Medina Hills village to allow them to disconnect. And I think Medina Hills’ motivations after incorporation might be a little different than they were before the incorporation.
I guess I’m also wondering what government services aren’t currently being provided that are desired – services that are so important that they need another layer of government. With the township, county, library, parks, and other units of government that serve the area, I think a lot of people feel they have sufficient government services and they are happy the way things are.
The November ballot will also contain a referendum which seeks to raise the sales tax one-quarter of one percent, with the proceeds being used for public safety in the county, specifically for a jail cell expansion. Why do you feel it is important this referendum pass?
The county has been studying its jail needs since the early 1990s. When the jail was built, it was a good facility. When it opened in the mid-1980s there were about 9,000 bookings. In 1995 they had over 17,000 bookings and in 1996 we are on target to hit about 18,000 bookings into that jail. We have people sleeping on the floor every night. While nobody wants criminals living in the lap of luxury, I can’ impress on people enough the seriousness of having inmates sleep on the floor outside of cells. It is a problem for the county in terms of liability. We can’ protect these people sufficiently. What’s worse, it puts our staff in harms’ way. Anybody who has toured the facility will tell you that it is not luxurious by any stretch of the imagination.
With the concern for crime and public safety, it’s a little disingenuous to say you’re tough on crime and support public safety but be soft on jail cells. The various parts of the judicial system have worked well together over the past few years to try to minimize the jail population. They have been doing alternative sentencing and using notices to appear instead of jail while awaiting adjudication. The use of home monitoring as an alternative to jail time is also increasing. The remaining criminals housed in the jail are there because they shouldn’t be out in the community.
The alternative to this expansion is for law enforcement officers to quit arresting criminals, which I don’t think anybody wants. The addition that is planned would allow for double bunking of prisoners, which will be a much more economical way of housing prisoners.
The alternatives to pay for this facility are basically two. One is the proposed tax quarter-cent retail sales tax, which would not be imposed on food, titled goods such as vehicles or prescription drugs. This would allow us to spread the cost of the facility not just to the 77,000 people who own property in Peoria County, but to all the people who shop here, play here, or are just passing through. A property tax increase would mean just property owners in Peoria County would pay the bill.
We think the money raised in the first year of a sale tax increase would be about $3.3 million. That amount to be sufficient to expand the jail and, in the future, help us with the juvenile detention facility. At this point, the alternative I see would be to issue bonds to expand the jail, and use the increased sales tax revenue to pay off those bonds.
One of the objections to the increased sales tax is that, although there are definite public safety needs, there are an unending number of needs in government today, and you can’t continually raise taxes to meet all these needs. How do you respond to that argument? Also, was there any thought on including a sunset clause in the proposed tax increase?
Take a look at your property tax bill and separate the part Peoria County is responsible for. My own tax bill is a little less than $9 for each $100 that my property is worth and county’s share of that is about 83 cents. That share is down over the past five years from $1.15. The county has done a pretty good job of lowering its bite on the taxes, and other units of government in the county apparently have too. According to the Illinois Taxpayers Federation, the average total property tax bill is Peoria County is about 38 percent less than the average tax bill for downstate counties.
There is no sunset provision for the sales tax in the statute. However, by law, all of the revenue from this sales tax must be used for public safety. Once the bonds are paid off, the sales tax used to make bond payments would still be used for other portions of the county’s public safety programs, thus further lessening the need for property tax to support these programs. The property tax is sort of the last dollar funded. If more sales tax is available for public safety operations, less property tax will be needed. You look at all your other revenues first, and then your expenditures, and the difference has to come out of the property tax. So when the jail and juvenile detention center are paid off, the sales tax revenue will essentially reduce the property taxes.
If the sales tax does not pass, the other alternative would affect the property tax. The County Board has already requested consideration from the Public Building Commission on whether they would be willing to finance the project. I don’t know when we will have an answer on that but it will certainly be before the referendum. So, the referendum isn’t really a referendum on whether you want a larger jail. The County Board has said we are going to have a larger jail and everyone is telling us we need this. The referendum is on how we want to pay for it.
We are also looking at alternative financing methods that would use existing resources as much as possible without issuing bonds. However, this will take longer, and the problem of paying for the additional operating costs of the larger facility would still be a problem. That’s why the sales tax is needed.
It’s hard to imagine any single issue that’s more important to the future of this area than the survival of the Illinois River and Peoria Lakes. How do you view this massive issue as it relates to the County of Peoria?
One of the things the county did, before I came on board, was work with three other counties on an erosion control ordinance. We passed our erosion control ordinance, which has been in effect for over a year now. That’s working very well. We have also worked quietly behind the scenes to encourage the City of Peoria, and they have now passed their own erosion control ordinance, which very closely mirrors our ordinance.
One of the things I found surprising when I came to the area was that concern for the condition of the river wasn’t more widespread. I looked at a study which had been done in the late 1980s that outlined how much siltation was coming into the river. In the early 1900s, the Peoria Lakes were like 130,000 acres; now they’re down to something like 30,000 acres. I think that river is very important. Now that the city of Peoria has passed its ordinance, we will be trying to work with some of the other municipalities in the area to demonstrate to them why it is important that we all do this.
There is another think I found off, coming here from the Chicago area. Up to this point, we have had the luxury down here of not having to worry about the storm water runoff and these types of things. Governments and developers in the Chicago area takes these requirements for granted. We had ordinances in Park Forest that said the water can’t run off of a lot any faster after development than it did before. Virtually every developer and government body in the Chicago area works under the same sort of rules. They are not burdensome and they are there because if it the smart thing to do for the whole area. I think maybe this should have been done a little quicker down here. The county is strongly behind these efforts.
One thing I see that needs to be sorted out a little bit is that there is kind of an urban-rural split. Some people are saying, “We are not the problem; it’s the farmers who are doing it.” I hate to see the blame game going on. Lots of farmers have been doing no-till and low-till farming for years to reduce the amount of runoff. Improving the development sites in part of the county will help quite a bit.
Over the last couple of years, on more than one occasion, the Peoria County Board has been characterized by partisanship, with some bitter divisions among board members. How do you handle that as an employee of the board? What is the working relationship among board members like?
First of all, this is Illinois. Politics in Illinois is played with shoulder pads and headgear. It’s serious business. I am continually surprised when people are surprised that politicians act politically. That’s what politicians do. All these people, I believe, have the county’s best interests at heart. They tend to look at things a little differently and they tend to approach things a little differently.
I am a Star Trek fan from years ago. If you think about the characters in a lot of the Star Trek plots, you have Spock, who is very coldly analytical, and would approach the problem from one direction. Then you have McCoy – Bones, the doctor, who is a man of science, but who tended to approach things very emotionally. They would be in conflict, each having a different idea about how things should be solved. The blend of their styles, of course, was Captain Kirk, who was very logical up to a point but also recognized the emotion. Typically he would meld those two elements together at some point, go as far as the rationality would take him, and then make a leap of faith and trust his instincts.
To some extent, the problems of the County Board have been overblown, because in many cases the board has come together for important issues regarding the county. You saw this on the jail issue and a number of other things.
The fact that people disagree about the means of doing things is entirely natural. If we agreed on everything all of the time, some of us wouldn’t be needed. You area always going to have disagreements.
In Kansas I worked for a county with a board that was virtually all Republicans. They had just as many disagreements as this board, which is pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The parties are just labels in some cases. I think you are going to see some coming together on some of the issues.
The other thing I would say is that you only have to look down the street to the Peoria City Council to see that they’ve had some pretty heated debates, and they are a nonpartisan body.
How would you characterize your management style?
This is a very decentralized organization, so just giving orders isn’t the way to get things done. I am in charge of the things the County Board is in charge of. But there are nine other elected officials who are independently elected. They have a good deal of authority on their own; we recommend a budget for them and work with them on personnel and policy issues. But the county sheriff, for example, doesn’t report to me.
My management style tends to be collaborative. My staff in Park Forest characterized my style as “quiet but constant.” I don’t yell and people or throw things, but I walk around a lot and talk to people; I keep on them. If there is something that is a concern, I will stay with it. I like to get personally involved in some issues, for example, the landfill or economic development projects.
I tend to think that employees are adults, and I tend to try to treat them that way. It strikes me that, in many organizations, we expect people to be good parents, good citizens, good money managers, and good users of their time off the job – then when they come to work for eight hours, we treat them like children. That’s kind of dumb. These are grown people. They are professionals and probably know how to do many jobs better than we do. Let’s talk to them and let’s find out what sorts of things can help us improve.
Is there any other issue you would like to address?
I am concerned about the issue of local elected officials’ flexibility. Counties in Illinois are largely hemmed in by states statutes. Essentially, unless the county can find a statute that says the county board can do something, they can’t do it.
In some states, it is the other way around – unless you find a statute that forbids you to do something, the local elected officials have the flexibility to decide what is in the best interest of their citizens.
I would respectfully suggest that state officials in Springfield don’t know what Peoria County citizens need as well as our local elected officials do.
Counties in Illinois are being pushed to respond to an increasing number of issues, with various mandates coming down to the states from the federal level and being pushed by the state to the local government level. We are often left with a set of antiquated laws which don’t let us respond in ways that modern government should respond.
I am going to be working with our legislative committee to suggest changes in state statutes to provide local elected officials with more authority to try to change this. IBI