Daily Chronicle editor Kelsey Rettke and news reporter Katie Finlon recently had a virtual sit down with DeKalb mayoral candidates Carolyn Morris and Cohen Barnes to discuss tax increment financing, racial equity, police reform and the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, among other issues.
Morris was elected as Ward 1 Alderman for the City of DeKalb in April of 2019 and is also the executive director of RAMP, a non-profit advocacy group for people with disabilities. Morris is a combat Marine veteran who served in the United State Marines.
Cohen Barnes is the owner and CEO of Sundog IT, a technology firm in DeKalb. A DeKalb native, Barnes is also a United States veteran who served in the Army, and was previously elected to serve on the DeKalb District 428 school board from 2011 to 2015.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To watch the full 1 hour and 12-minute Zoom conversation, visit www.shawlocal.com/daily-chronicle.
Daily Chronicle: Can you tell us a little bit about why you’re running?
Carolyn Morris: It really only took me a couple of weeks of being an alderman to realize I loved what I was doing and I love solving people’s problems. The first summer that I was an alderman, we had multiple fires in the first ward and 808 Ridge Drive got shut down. I had to listen to a story of a mother who dropped her infant from a second story window into the arms of the father below. And that was devastating to hear. And from that moment, I just started digging at the problems going on in the first ward, recognizing the depth of the issues that poverty was creating in the ward. I’m running because I want to serve the people. I’m sort of a perpetual public servant. It’s my calling.
Cohen Barnes: I adore this community. I grew up here. I’m also a business owner. I own a technology firm that’s headquartered in downtown DeKalb. I’m a commercial property owner. I’m invested on so many levels emotionally, as well as financially, as well as just from a commitment standpoint. I’ve always been here. I’m going to stay here. This is my home until the day I retire and beyond, really.
DC: We’re having this conversation a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the City of DeKalb held that emergency town hall meeting to come up with emergency business relief. We were headed into a lockdown period not knowing how long it’d last. This year hasn’t been without its tolls. Is there anything you feel should’ve happened but didn’t to support our struggling local businesses? And if so, what?
Barnes: I thought that the City of DeKalb jumped right on the issue right away and tried to do everything they could to relieve some of the burden on the business community. They did it from a perspective of the government trying to help the business community right when the pandemic hit. NIU President Lisa Freeman reached out to me in my role as the president of the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation to see if we could form a joint task force, and we did – DeKalb County UNITES. I put on 27 webinars and brought on subject matter experts from accountants to bankers. We also reached out to 50 major employers in our community and asked them to accelerate the spending of budgeted money and focus it to be spent locally and they all agreed to do just that. To be able to focus locally was just absolutely fantastic.
Morris: I do feel like the City did a good job of handling things. I feel like our city manager did a great job of identifying where we could be as lax as possible with businesses to be supportive. I struggled with the nuisance gathering ordinance [that would impose a $300 fine on those not complying with public safety mandates]. ... Actually, I think I voted against that one because it really felt like it was targeted at specific groups. I tried to use my social media presence to be a springboard to get more attention to non-profits and to let people know exactly where they could get resources. I tried to fill that gap and identify what services were out there. I feel like we’re getting close to that point where we could assess what we did well and could’ve done better as a city council, as a community, because that’ll really help us rise to the next level when we have another situation like this, that we’re not prepared for.
DC: There’s been significant economic development this past year, including the Facebook data center and the Ferrara Candy Company distribution center. How would you classify economic development as a priority within your campaign? What else would you like to see done, particularly to further the Annie Glidden North Task Force mission?
Morris: One of the biggest things that I’m really excited about is, like how our city manager pursued Facebook and Ferrara, we can do that for housing providers. We need to think outside of the box and use those same really effective tactics to see if we can get someone else to purchase Hunter Properties, see if we can get someone else to become a responsible landlord in the first ward. Because it is one of the biggest struggling points. We’re in court with Hunter Properties and the process has been slow and tedious. I’ve got my finger on the pulse of that situation and I’m waiting to see it evolve. We’re hoping that’ll make some significant changes for the community. As far as economic development goes, one of the suggestions of the Annie Glidden North revitalization plan was to have a tax increment finance district in that area. I would love to hear what the community wants in a really holistic sense.
Barnes: I’ve got a high level of trust that Opportunity DeKalb [the new citizen-led group which formed out of the City’s Annie Glidden North Revitalization Task Force] is going to do some just great things. Thinking of Hunter properties, we’re definitely not doing enough. The tours that I had done...it was atrocious, the conditions that residents in those properties have to live and so much of that being around the landlord itself. And I know the city has done a lot, but we haven’t done enough. If I am elected as mayor, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that we put our foot on the gas on making sure we address Hunter Properties in a stronger measure than we are at this point. I’m a big supporter of the TIF district. I’m a recipient of TIF. The more we can get companies like Facebook and Ferrara to come in, the more we’re going to diversify our tax base and the more we’re going to have increased tax revenues and lower the tax rate.
DC: How should we use TIF funds? How should we not use TIF funds? Can you give us any specific examples?
Barnes: In a community, you identify a geography that’s blighted, that needs some TLC. So you draw a line on a map and say this is going to be the TIF district. What happens is all the property taxes that are generated from the properties in that district freeze as far as the amounts that all the taxing bodies receive. Then, next year, everyone’s taxes go up. Sadly, they go up every year. That difference between where they froze and the [current rate], that money goes into a pool used to fund projects to be able to turn around a particular area. So Annie Glidden North being a TIF district could bring incredible opportunity to be able to turn that particular area around. But there was definitely misuse of TIF funds in the city. That was poor leadership at the City of DeKalb during that time. I’m glad we had the audit. And I’m super glad we have City Manager Bill Nicklas in place, someone that understands municipal finances that can structure TIF, the allocation of TIF funds and work with all the other taxing bodies to make sure we have complete transparency of how it’s being used, where the funds are going.
Morris: There was a case study I was reading and it’s actually on Beloit, Wisconsin, and the way that they did their TIF district. One of the ways we’ve done our TIF district is to draw the lines and then wait for the increment to build up. There’s an alternative to that. In short, it’s getting all of the anticipated revenues from the TIF and pooling them at the beginning. So you would borrow to get that and have that whole big lump sum at the very beginning and invest it all fast instead of what I think we’ve been doing, which is waiting for the increment to build up each year, which has allowed a trickle of success to happen. And I think there’s a lot of room to capture substantially bigger returns on investment when we do it with like a one-two punch fast. I think TIF can be done well – like hearing about this most recent structure, I think we really have to be studying and assessing.
DC: After nearly two years without a full-time permanent police chief, the DeKalb Police Department will soon welcome David Byrd from Illinois State Police who will start in May. He’s our first Black police chief in the history of the DeKalb Police Department, and will lead the new restructure. What are your thoughts on his appointment and the department’s restructuring?
Morris: I’m really, really optimistic now that we have this new police chief. It’s great leadership that drives the bus. We need a dynamic, really strong leader on the bus and now we’ve got him. As far as the way the department’s headed, I don’t think we’ll truly know that until he gets in there and gets his feet wet. But as far as the restructuring, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t impressed. It was a little disappointing to me. When you look at the budget from this past year and the budget from the prior year, you’ve got your department’s structure set up perfectly there. And you can look at the two and go, “Hmm, what, is this restructured? Or did we change names?” I really want to see everything [recommended through] the Human Relations Commission. I want to see all that put into practice.
Barnes: I’m so extremely excited to have David Byrd on the force. I really felt good about the process and, knowing that City Manager Bill Nicklas was leading that process, I had no doubt we were going to find an absolutely amazing person. I grew up with people that are on the police force. I have gone on multiple ride alongs, to see the level of professionalism, caring and empathy they bring. Regarding the reforms: it seems like we did a lot of great things, like declaring we’re a no choke hold community, a no no-knock warrant community, requiring a duty to intervene, buying body cameras. I’m not sure how I feel about disciplinary records being published forever because, especially with the state’s issuance of anonymous complaints, those can now be part of a permanent record. But I think it is good the public have full disclosure. I’m happy we did those reforms and I think they’re gonna make a positive impact going forward.
DC: What does an equitable ‘DeKalb for all’ look like? Over the past year, we’ve heard many DeKalb residents of color, especially within our Black communities, say we’re not listening to the needs of all DeKalb’s citizens. How do we ensure DeKalb resources belong to all, regardless of race, class or socioeconomic circumstance? Can you be specific about ideas you have?
Barnes: ‘Othering’ ultimately is ‘the people that belong’, say white, middle class people in DeKalb, and then you have all those that are ‘othered,’ people of color, in lower economic statuses. We need to give more sectors a voice within our community, and that voice has been crying for so long. There’s been change, progress but not the kind of progress we should be at in 2021 right now. How can we bring one side and the other together to decide what we want our community to be? Many people are tired of talking and creating a plan, what are we actually going to do? So I’m very hopeful this is going to be the next generation of conversation.
Morris: I think we could use a racial equity impact assessment, that would give us some feedback on where the real issues are and how we can help them. This year I read How to be an Anti-Racist, I picked up White Fragility to learn about my own biases and fragility. These are things we can push out into the community to make sure that these pieces of information are accessible. I learned to talk to my children about race, which was something I hadn’t done before. And that’s my privilege, and I didn’t understand that before going through this past year. I was like many of us who use the term that’s so offensive now, “didn’t see color” and it was hard for us to discuss. We didn’t have the tools or know where to take the conversation.. So finally I took my children to a protest, and they made signs on the back of their Lego boxes. And we had the discussion of why are we saying Black lives matter and why do we have to talk about this?
Daily Chronicle: Thoughts on backyard chickens, for or against?
Carolyn Morris: I think everybody knows I’m in support of it. I like the environmental implications. I like the freedom implications. I think that people sometimes make this seem bigger than it is. I don’t want to have chickens in my yard. When we dictate too much, we discount people’s capability to handle things like this. The city’s environmental commission recommended this. I really think it’s important that we respect our commissions by listening to them.
Cohen Barnes: I’d probably be against it. But what it comes down to is, I’ve spent almost no time on this topic. We have got some incredibly pressing issues in our community. I haven’t had a need to spend time deep diving into what is going to be my stance on backyard chickens. But right now, I’d say I was against it. We’ll let the referendum happen. We’ll see what a majority of the voters want to do. I’m a believer that, if the majority of the people want something, then that’s something you really got to take a look at.