Peoria County Administrator Patrick Urich is responsible for the day-to-day activities of Peoria County, including overseeing the $88 million budget, 30 departments (nine with elected department heads) and approximately 950 full- and part-time employees. Urich, selected from more than 20 applicants in a national search, replaced Jim Daken, who served as county administrator from May 1999 until his death in July 2000.
Urich, 32, started his public administration career in 1993 as an analyst for Lake County. In 1997 he was named assistant county administrator. In that position, he was responsible for helping to develop Lake County’s $330 million annual budget and serving as the county’s legislative liaison in Springfield and Washington, D.C. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Illinois Wesleyan University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Urich’s past and present professional affiliations include: International City/County Management Association, National Association of County Administrators, Illinois City/County Management Association, and the American Society for Public Administration.
He is a member of the National Association of Counties Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee and ICMA’s Government Affairs Committee.
Tell us about your background. Schools attended, family, etc.
I was born and raised in the south suburbs of Chicago. Both of my parents are educators, which gave me the unique opportunity of watching my father work while I was in high school. It was an experience I value, and I believe it helped shape my strong work ethic. I also have roots in central Illinois, as my mother was reared in Lexington (just north of Bloomington-Normal). I chose to attend Illinois Wesleyan University in no small part because of these family ties to the area.
I received my bachelor’s degree in political science from IWU in 1991, and my master’s degree in public administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1994. I’m also a newlywed—my wife, Brooke, and I were married in Peoria September 29.
What are your responsibilities as Peoria County Administrator? How do your responsibilities differ from your previous position in Lake County? What about this job appealed to you?
As county administrator, I’m responsible for ensuring that the policy decisions of the Peoria County Board are faithfully executed and for supervising the day-to-day operation of the county government, which is quite different from city government.
Traditionally, counties are viewed as an extension of state government, which explains why counties are responsible for financing the judicial system. In most cities there are few elected officials other than the mayor and council. In Peoria County, there are nine countywide elected officials with responsibilities for their offices: auditor; circuit clerk, county clerk, coroner, regional superintendent of schools, recorder of deeds, sheriff, state’s attorney, and treasurer.
In addition, there are several boards—the Board of Health, the Board for the Care and Treatment of Persons with Developmental Disabilities, and the Veteran’s Assistance Commission—that create policy but are funded by the Peoria County Board. Thus, the role of a chief administrative officer at the county level is much more like a conductor of a symphony seeking to coordinate all of the individual activities into a coherent sound, rather than that of a quarterback moving a team down the field.
I am the only employee of the 18 county board members. The board’s role is to identify the long-range goals and objectives of the county—in conjunction with all of the independent entities and offices—and to place funding behind those priorities. As such, the budget process is extremely important for the county board, as it reflects the priorities and concerns of the county board from year to year.
I have been very interested in Peoria County for some time. In Lake County, my responsibilities included legislative affairs and the coordination of activities in the criminal justice and health and human service systems.
I was one of three assistant county administrators responsible for only a portion of the entire operation. Peoria County may be much smaller in size than Lake County, but the responsibility and scope of my position has increased significantly.
You are nearing your first anniversary as Peoria County Administrator. What has surprised you the most during this year?
The most striking difference between Lake County and Peoria County has been the different economic and growth climate. Lake County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, fortunate to be situated between Milwaukee and Chicago and home to many corporations. The real estate market is also strong—in fact, during the 1990s nearly 1,000 people moved into Lake County every month.
When the Census numbers were announced for Peoria County, I was hoping to see stronger growth numbers. The ability to attract and retain employers and jobs is critical to the long-term vitality of this region.
Many of the financial problems governments face are due to the lack of growth—lack of sales tax growth, and lack of growth in the tax base. The cost of government continues, however, and with increases in wages and health care costs, governments are forced to do one of two things: raise taxes or cut services.
The Peoria County Board recognizes this and has made the economic growth of the region one of their long-range goals. I was also pleased to note the discussion about growth and economic development is occurring in many circles, and the key is to turn that discussion into action.
Upon your arrival, what County issues needed immediate attention? Why? How did you address the problems?
The first major issue that required immediate attention was the processing and distribution of property tax bills. Property taxes are a major source of revenue for almost all local governments, and delays in the collection costs many taxing districts significant dollars.
The administration of the property tax system, however, is arcane, outdated and in need of reform.
Upon my arrival, I was informed the tax bills were mailed months late in 2000, and it was likely the bills would be going out late again in 2001. The processing of property taxes starts with the township assessor and travels through four county departments, with a short stop at the Illinois Department of Revenue.
To speed up the process, all county departments with property tax responsibilities were convened and a critical path outlined to get the bills distributed. Through communication and a renewed focus on cooperation, we were successful in getting the bills out on time.
How are county projects, facilities, etc. funded?
Peoria County maintains a diverse and relatively stable revenue base. Property taxes account for one-fifth of its total revenues. Sales taxes and other state revenues are an important part of financing county operations, accounting for 14 percent; intergovernmental revenues, such as grants from the state or federal government, account for 17 percent of revenues. The largest source of revenue (37 percent) is user fees, in which individuals pay for the services they receive.
The county board established a policy of setting user fees to 100 percent of the actual cost of providing the service. For example, marriage licenses have recently increased from $25 to $27, and the budget includes anticipated increases in the fee for recording documents and licenses to sell liquor.
On the flip side, the county issued nearly $4 million in bonds for the Hamilton Square parking deck in 1990, and this debt will be paid off in 2003.
Other debt includes a $16 million bond for the expansion of the Peoria County Jail and Juvenile Detention Center and $3.5 million for the renovation of the Allied Agencies Center near OSF Medical Center. Overall, the principal and interest on all of these capital projects accounts for just 3 percent of the total county budget.
Justice and public safety costs account for 31 percent of the $88 million budget. Health and welfare expenses for Bel-Wood Nursing Home, the City/County Health Department and other human service departments account for one-quarter of the budget. Highway expenditures account for another 11 percent, and general governmental expenditures account for the remainder.
Looking at expenditures another way, nearly 57 percent of the budget pays salaries and benefits, 31 percent pays for commodities and contractual services (paper and utilities), and 4 percent pays for large equipment and facility improvements. Peoria County’s fund balances are estimated to be $5.3 million at the end of 2002, up from $2 million at the start of the year.
What seems to be most important to the citizens of Peoria County? How supportive are area citizens regarding county business?
Traditionally, counties have been viewed as the provider of services to the rural areas. Times have changed, however, and counties are now grappling with both rural and urban issues—especially regarding public safety and criminal justice.
Today’s county government is like a holding company with several distinct businesses—public safety and criminal justice, health and human services, property tax administration, and land use and highway infrastructure. Because county government is responsible for services cities and states do not provide, it is a challenge to explain to the public exactly what we do.
Tip O’Neill once said, "All politics is local." Such is the case for the Peoria County Board, which represents about 10,000 people per district. Citizens tend to get active when issues arise that affect them personally, and land use issues seem to stir the public the most. For example, during this year’s budget discussions, more calls have come in regarding a proposed adult entertainment facility than regarding the impact of proposed budget cuts.
How can we improve communication between city/county government? What are you doing toward that end?
County Board Chairman Dave Williams and I have been meeting with the mayor and city manager on a regular basis. We have been discussing issues of common concern, areas of cooperation, growth issues and the sharing of resources.
The city and county work closely together in many areas, including joint purchasing arrangements, the landfill, and the development of a geographic information system.
These meetings between city and county leaders will continue, and I believe good things come from communication and cooperation.
What are the misperceptions regarding the role of the county administrator?
Many people are unaware that this position even exists. Further, while I may recommend policy alternatives to the County Board, it is not my role to be a policy maker—I ensure the policy decisions get carried out.
As administrator, I am accountable to the county board, and my ability to coordinate the activities of county government with all the entities and offices that have their own level of policy making is important. Building strong working relationships is critical.
How does the financial picture of Peoria County look? What will put the county in better financial shape? How can this be accomplished?
The county’s financial situation can only be described as problematic. Expenditures have outstripped revenues in the general fund (our main operating fund) and other funds. Numerous fund deficits have lowered fund balances to critical levels.
In 1999, fund balances ended the year at nearly $9.2 million, and in 2000 they had been reduced to $7.7 million. If current projections hold for 2001, fund balances beginning January 1 will be just under $2 million —a $5.75 million reduction over 2000. Paramount to financial solvency is having sufficient funds on hand to allow for fluctuations in revenues and to meet unexpected needs that may arise.
Currently, the county has not retained sufficient funds to meet these challenges, nor has it retained sufficient funds to meet the general obligations of an $88 million enterprise.
For the first time in recent memory, Peoria County had to borrow funds—pledging future property taxes—to meet its short-term obligations.
Further compounding the situation is a $750,000 shortfall in sales tax revenues due to the weakening economy. Faced with this economic climate, it would be irresponsible to recommend a budget that did not seek to balance expenditures and revenues.
Recently, the county board adopted revised financial policies. The new policies are intended to protect the policy-making ability of the county board by ensuring important policy decisions are not controlled by financial problems or emergencies.
The highlights of those policies include fund balance targets intended to minimize the need to borrow in the future, and a pay-as-you-go balanced-budget philosophy. That requires current expenditures to be paid with current revenues.
The proposed 2002 budget significantly reduces operating expenditures and enhances the county’s bottom line. If adopted, more than $3.3 million will be added to the county fund balance. Efforts have also been taken to streamline county government.
General fund departments were asked to submit budgets at 95 percent of the 2001 level, including a 25 percent increase for health insurance and applicable wage increases.
Revenue increases were taken into consideration as an offset for expenditure reductions, and the county workforce has been reduced 6 percent.
The result is a budget that will reduce general fund operating expenditures more than $1.8 million from 2001, the single largest reduction in operating expenditures since the early 1980s, and only the fourth time in 23 years the general fund will have more budgeted in revenues than expenditures.
Explain the Bel-Wood Nursing Home challenges. How can they be best resolved?
For several years, the largest challenge facing Peoria County government has been Bel-Wood Nursing Home, a non-profit, 300-bed facility.
Financial constraints have placed significant burdens on hiring and retaining a quality workforce at Bel-Wood, yet due to turnover, the county will spend more than ever before on temporary staffing.
Staff morale has been affected by management instability, which contributes to the difficulty in retaining employees, which weakens support for management. The regulatory environment, the local and national shortages of nurses, the ability to pay competitive wages, and the high profile of a nursing home owned by a county with serious financial concerns only further exacerbate an already precarious situation for Bel-Wood.
For more than 150 years, Peoria County has been involved in caring for the indigent residents of Peoria County through the efforts of the City/ County Health Department, Veteran’s Assistance Commission, Allied Agencies and other agencies.
A nursing home, albeit discretionary under Illinois law, is no different. In the late 1980s, county taxpayers voted to support a tax to sustain the nursing home. It is my belief this voluntary action is recognition by the taxpayers that the county should continue to care for the indigent elderly. Thus, the obligation for the county is to find the best possible stewards to continue in the business of long-term care.
The best manner to address the challenges outlined above and to provide the highest quality care for the residents of Bel-Wood is to hire a nursing home administrator who reports directly to the county administrator.
The Bel-Wood administrator would need to build a management team and begin the process of filling significant gaps in the nursing department, but these tasks are not insurmountable. It is also important to note that if the county is unable to fill staff vacancies at Bel-Wood, it may be time to explore other options, such as contraction or the elimination of Medicare beds to live within our means.
Efforts should first be undertaken to see if wage increases would have any effect upon the employment situation.
Many county employees claim they are not happy with their current benefit packages. How do they compare with other counties? What are you doing to address those concerns?
The county’s health plan is comparable with other governmental entities, but rising health care costs continue to adversely affect its bottom line. Employee premiums have been raised by 25 percent again this year, but we still anticipate a $2.3 million deficit by the end of 2002.
To help solve this financial problem, the county formed a committee of labor and management employees who are responsible for crafting changes to the plan. This health benefits committee has been very busy trying to shape the plan and lower the costs. Changes have been made to deductibles, maximum out-of-pocket costs, penalties for out-of-network charges and so on. These committee members are to be commended for their diligence in seeking to craft an affordable health plan, but if their efforts are notsuccessful in achieving savings, other significant changes will probably have to be implemented.
What would you like to accomplish as Peoria County administrator over the next year?
I have three major goals in 2002. First, it is imperative the county begins the second phase of aligning resources.
This means evaluating programs and services, determining what discretionary programs can be eliminated and what discretion the county has over service levels in those programs that are mandated.
The proposed 2002 budget increases the general fund to its maximum tax rate. Higher property taxes in the future will come only from a growth in property values.
Salary increases (3.5 percent) in 2002 will still outpace the taxes generated by an increase in property values (5 percent) by $297,000. As a result, the county will have to compact its services to meet the available resources.
Second, due to the resource constraints faced by the county, we will need to maximize the management capacity of the middle and upper-level managers.
Lastly, I would like to see the county board’s policy agenda carried out completely. At their recent long-range planning workshop, the board identified 15 action items, including addressing Bel-Wood’s financial problems, crafting a comprehensive growth policy and addressing economic development. It is my hope that together we can accomplish a great deal in 2002.
What has been your greatest challenge? What are you most proud of?
The greatest challenge has been crafting a budget that strives to make the county live within its means. With the economic uncertainty that exists today, it is more critical than ever that spending in county government be reigned in.
I am most proud of the relationships I have developed with the board members, elected officials, department heads, employees and members of the community over the past year.
There is a lot of work to accomplish, and I look forward to addressing those challenges. IBI