Ill. city cuts 2 fire engines, approves 8 FF layoffs

The council voted 6-5 to make the cuts in order to fill the city's COVID-19 budget hole, despite strong opposition from the city's firefighters' union

Andy Kravetz
Journal Star, Peoria, Ill.

PEORIA, Ill. — After several months of debate and emotional pleas, the Peoria City Council voted on Tuesday to cut two engine companies and borrow $10 million to close the COVID-19 budget hole.

The move means that Engine 4 from South Peoria and Engine 20 from Far North Peoria will be decommissioned as the final pieces of the puzzle to bring the city back into a balanced budget. The city will also borrow $10 million, which will help pay its bills.

The Peoria City Council has voted to cut two fire engines and eliminate 22 firefighters positions, 14 of which are vacant, in order to fill the city's COVID-19 budget hole.
The Peoria City Council has voted to cut two fire engines and eliminate 22 firefighters positions, 14 of which are vacant, in order to fill the city's COVID-19 budget hole. (Photo/Peoria Firefighters Local 50 Facebook)

Along with taking the two machines out of service, 22 firefighter positions will be eliminated. There are 14 spots currently vacant, with some of those coming from a voluntary separation agreement, so the end result is eight layoffs with the department.

That would happen, if things progress as they are supposed to, by Oct. 1, though Councilman Chuck Grayeb did indicate that he hoped the majority would reconsider Tuesday night's vote at next week's meeting.

The city has been grappling with a multi-million dollar budgetary black hole caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales tax, motor fuel tax, hotel and restaurant taxes all plummeted, and while the reopening over the summer did help fill city coffers better than expected, the shortfall still required action.

Prior to Tuesday, the city had cut more than $25 million in capital projects, laid off several in non public-safety areas, had non-union employees take several days of furlough and restructured some of the city's existing debt.

The motion passed 6-5, with Councilman Denis Cyr, who represents the area covered by Engine 20, flipping his vote from last week when the same measure failed by the same vote.

Voting no last week and on Tuesday were Beth Jensen, Grayeb, Rita Ali, Jim Montelongo and Denise Moore.

Ryan Brady, the head of Local 50, which represents the department's rank and file, held nothing back after the meeting.

"We can't function," he said of the cuts, which total 48 people in the past four years. "This is a catastrophic. This is going to drastically impact how we do business on a 24/7 basis."

Cyr, the swing vote, gave an emotional speech before the vote. He said he had received many text messages and phone calls in the past week, the most in his four years on the council.

And the vast number of people didn't want their taxes raised, even if it meant saving the fire station that was responsible for much of North Peoria. Cyr ran on cutting taxes, and that is what led him to his decision, he said.

"Increased taxes along with a perceived crime problem with would only supercharge the exodus (out of Peoria) causing bigger budget problems for years to come," he said.

But the former professional hockey player was adamant on one thing — the response times in the 5th District must be improved to come in line with other parts of the city. He urged his colleagues around the Horseshoe and Fire Chief Tony Ardis to join with him to make that happen.

The decision to cut the engines — which are essentially mobile pumping stations that provide water as well as equipment and personnel to fight fires — was controversial.

Both Moore, who represents South Peoria, and Cyr campaigned hard for the engines to stay in their area. Moore noted that South Peoria has a large number of calls and Cyr said his constituents deserved better response times and needed Engine 20 to remain on station.

But the fire chief explained why he recommended those cuts. It was for the safety of the people in the department. New construction, he said, like that in the Far Northern swath of the city burns faster and the homes collapse quicker. Given the cuts meant any backup was coming from farther away, it was the right move.

In essence, the move compresses the city's fire staff by cutting off the two extremes.

And while Brady said he understood the chief's moves, it made life much harder for residents and his colleagues.

"Response times are going to increase. Firefighters' safety is going to be at a greater risk because of this," he said.

He noted the Peoria Fire Department had dozens of firefighters less than comparable department like Springfield. It's irresponsible, he said, to continue to balance the city's budget on the back of the fire department.

"I really don't like our odds. We are playing a bad game of Russian roulette. Instead of taking bullets out of the gun, we are putting more bullets in the gun," he said.


©2020 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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