DeKALB – Another candidate who is a prominent business owner in the community has thrown his hat in the ring for the City of DeKalb mayoral race.
Cohen Barnes, 51, owner of Sundog IT, officially announced his candidacy for DeKalb mayor on Monday, according to a news release from Barnes’s campaign.
"As a native son of DeKalb, I have a deep love for our community and all who call DeKalb home," Barnes wrote in the news release. "DeKalb is a great place to live, work, study and play, and I have the experience, commitment and work ethic to continue to move our community forward."
Barnes isn’t a stranger to elected office, as he said Monday afternoon he previously served on the DeKalb School District 428 Board of Education and has served and continues to serve on several non-profit and government boards and committees over the last two decades, including the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce and DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation. He said running for mayor seemed like the natural next step for him and that he wants to continue to expand the opportunities the city has.
Barnes said he adores the town, its people and the potential the community has overall.
“I just want to be part in helping with that potential," Barnes said.
Barnes joins DeKalb Ward 1 Alderman Carolyn Morris in the race so far, though none have filed official candidacy papers for the April 2021 election yet since the window won’t open until mid-December. DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith announced in September he would not seek reelection.
Barnes said the three areas he would prioritize for those who work and live in the city include improving quality of life, which involves quality housing and feeling safe where residents live. He said his priorities also include improving economic development, attracting more businesses to the area and working to diversify the community's tax base.
Barnes said his first orders of business, should he be elected into the office, would include doubling down on the city's budget and expanding his knowledge on it to see where opportunities and shortfalls lay. He said he would also see what’s in the city's pipe right now, what inhibitors may be in place and picking the brains of city officials in seeing what can be done to address those three main goals of his.
"There's some low hanging fruit we can go after," Barnes said.
Speaking of the budget, which includes police department restructuring plans, Barnes said he has grown up knowing local police officers, is friends with a few of them now and has an incredible amount of respect for what law enforcement does on the daily. He said he has gone on multiple overnight police ride-alongs and witnessed a few calls, including a police officer having to interact with a homeless person for hours, saying such interactions may not be the best use of officers’ time.
Barnes acknowledged continued calls for change locally and nationally when it comes to community-centric policing, and said he’s a believer in that call for change, though he wants to make sure ‘police who are going above and beyond’ in serving their community are still supported. He said he’s ultimately in favor of the city’s proposed police department restructuring plans.
“They’ve listened to public, they’ve tried to adapt," Barnes said of the city's restructure plan. "And I think that’s great that they’ve been listening to people and making changes based on that, and I’m supportive of that."
Barnes said he believes the city previously has not used tax increment financing, or TIF, revenue correctly or honored the intent of TIF.
Under TIF, property taxes in a defined geographic area are collected and, over time, as property values rise, the increased tax revenue which would have been collected normally, goes into an incentive pool to grow and be used for specific projects. Traditionally, TIF incentive pool funds go to development or other projects designed to improve buildings or areas within the TIF-defined region which are deemed ‘blighted’ by the TIF Act.
However, many municipalities use the tax dollars to augment their budgets, utilizing the money to pay for administrative and police salaries. Meanwhile, millions more are spent with no officially reported purpose at all, a Shaw Media review of tax increment financing records over the last 10 years has found.
A completed forensic audit of the past decade of the City of DeKalb’s TIF use released in May showed $7.9 million was used to offset employee salaries. At the time, DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas called the spending “excessive” and said the city no longer authorizes transfers like that. On Jan. 16, 2019, with the approval of the city council, city staff began to implement internal policies to limit TIF reimbursement to employees who would not have performed that type of work were it not for the TIF program, and keep more detailed records.
Barnes said he is in favor of creating TIF districts and using that revenue as they are intended to be used, citing the city's downtown area as a good example of that.
“It can be a wonderful tool if used correctly … in transforming neighborhoods and ultimately to transform the community,” Barnes said.
Barnes graduated DeKalb High School in 1987, according to the news release. Like Morris, Barnes is also a veteran. He returned to DeKalb after serving in the U.S. Army for three years and he attended Kishwaukee College and completed his bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University, per the release. He lives in DeKalb with his wife of 28 years, Amy Barnes, and they have two children: Hank Barnes who's in the Illinois National Guard and a student at Illinois State University, and Maddie Barnes, a senior at DeKalb High School.
The technology firm that Barnes owns employs about 20 people, according to the news release.
• This story was updated at about 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30, to include additional comment from Barnes.