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Peoria Council Makes No Decisions on Fire Department Cuts

Peoria Public Radio

After more than two hours of discussion, the Peoria City Council narrowly voted down borrowing $10 million and decommissioning two fire engines to balance a city budget decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic.In addition to cutting Engine 4 from the Jefferson station on the South Side, and Engine 20 in far North Peoria on Wilhelm, the cuts proposed by At-Large City Councilman Sid Ruckriegel also would have meant laying off at least 17 firefighters. However, Truck 1 and several additional firefighter jobs would be spared.

City Manager Patrick Urich said $10 million in working cash bonds can be issued, without the need to repay taxes, to pay back the money, given current revenue projections.

"I don't fault anyone or any single source for the state of affairs that we're currently in financially. Simply stated, it is what it is," Ruckriegel said at the council's Tuesday meeting. "And be assured, no one that's voting tonight on this recommendation is voting on the perfect package of cuts."

A number of unfilled vacancies, combined with firefighters who plan to take advantage of a voluntary separation incentive approved by council on Tuesday may allow the city of stave off some of the layoffs, said Urich.

Ruckriegel described the motion as a compromise. But it ultimately failed in a 6-5 vote, with council members Rita Ali, Denise Moore, Chuck Grayeb, Beth Jensen, Jim Montelongo, and Denis Cyr opposing it.

Moore and Cyr argued against losing firefighting resources in their districts. Moore said the South Side, which has some of the city's oldest and most vulnerable housing stock, can't absorb the loss of more firefighting equipment in an area where many homes lack smoke detectors, and some people, out of desperation, use stoves to heat their homes during the winter.

"We need to get to the space where we put our big boy pants on, and our big girl pants on, and we make the hard decisions to take to our constituents what is needed, but only after they have the confidence that we're not sitting here in the backroom trying to parse the money out to someplace else," she said.

Moore, the First District councilwoman currently set to face two challengers in next year's election, suggested borrowing more money to keep more engines online, arguing public safety is more important to her than the city's credit rating or winning the race.

Cyr said the 5th District isn't reaping the benefits of the taxes residents there pay to support the entire city.

"Our district, the 5th District, is the largest district in the city of Peoria," said Cyr. "Right now, we have the slowest response time with two fire stations."

Councilman Tim Riggenbach of the 3rd District suggested that a district-centric approach was a short-sighted way to look at the situation.

"The pain is getting worse, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "It's not getting better. So let's look at this from a city lens. Let's look at the choices we've had. And as much as it stinks, I think the motion on the floor is the one that's going to get us where we need to be and will set the groundwork as we start next year's budget." 

Peoria Fire Chief Tony Ardis said he's frustrated with the fire department's current staffing levels after multiple rounds of cuts over the past several years.

"We are at the point where it's our safety. It's the safety of our members. And we are not going to jeopardize it any more than it already has been. So we're basically trying to shrink the city and make sure we don't have crews on the scene for nine or 10 minutes without any backup," he said.

As the fire department's leader, Ardis said response times at the Jefferson and Wilhelm stations were chosen as they already are well past optimal response time standards. Closing other stations around them would only exacerbate that situation and force firefighters to take more risks, he added, especially with the lightweight, newer homes in North Peoria that burn faster.

"They will not stay outside. They will not take a moment of pause knowing that their backup is eight to 10 minutes away. They are going inside. That's what they do. That's what professional firefighters do. And that is what they are going to do," Ardis said. "So the only option we had, whether it's the crew in Engine 4, or the crew in Engine 20, is to take them away so they don't put themselves in that position."

The chief noted that Engines 5, 8, 11, 17, Truck 10, Rescues 1 and 2, two training tower positions, a hazmat inspector, public safety education officer, a building inspector, and an EMS QAO already were eliminated in previous budget cycles.

With the proposed cuts, Ardis said Peoria would have 86 fewer firefighters than Rockford, 20 fewer than Naperville, 45 less than Aurora, and 56 less than Springfield. Of those departments, only Rockford responds to more calls than Peoria, he said.

Cyr and Grayeb were rankled at one point when a motion to vote was called before every member got to weigh in. That motion was defeated, allowing debate to continue.

"I'm not going to support any of this," said Grayeb, the 2nd District councilman. "Because every citizen in the city of Peoria, I want to treat just as if they're a family member. And I would never do anything that would jeopardize the lives of my family, nor the lives of our employees."

Grayeb's motion to host two town halls after Labor Day to gather more feedback and lay out several potential solutions, including a tax increase, before acting failed to gather much support. Mayor Jim Ardis said he expects while most people don't want to lose the engines, they don't want to see a tax increase even more.

At-Large Councilman Zach Oyler suggested the council already has had six months to gather feedback from constitutents, and another meeting would be a waste of time after months of indecision.

"I said months ago, the money wasn't going to come to bail us out of this mess. And guess what? The money didn't come," said Oyler. "And guess what? We put off making the tough decisions six months and dug our hole even deeper. Something has to be done, and it's time for this group to grow up and start doing it. Stop sitting in your chair and just waiting on the problem to fix itself."

Ardis echoed that viewpoint after several round of comments around the horseshoe, saying he believes it's neither fiduciarily nor ethically right to continue to allow the city's coffers to bleed out any longer.

"We know what needs to be done, but not if that fire truck is in my neighborhood, regardless of if my district already has two or three fire stations," he said. "Folks, this is ugly, ugly decision-making. It has to, has to, happen. And there's 11 people in the whole city that say, 'I have what it takes to sit up there and make a decision.' And I've never served on a council that was less willing to do that. And it pains me to say that."

The council did vote to refinance $20 million dollars of debt, but has yet to make a final decision on the other budget pieces after half a year of lengthy deliberations. The council is set to take up the budget talks again in two weeks.

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Tim Shelley is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.