Ill. city takes first step towards cutting 22 firefighters
After a lot of comments, complaints and dire warnings, Peoria officials voted in a nonbinding, advisory vote to approve cuts to the fire and police departments
By Steve Tarter
PEORIA, Ill. — If an advisory vote taken Monday night is a harbinger of things to come, the city's fire and police departments will lose several positions as City Hall tries to claw its way out of a $6 million budget shortfall.
After a lot of comments, complaints and dire warnings, members of the Peoria City Council voted 7-4 in a nonbinding, advisory vote that approved the cuts to the police and fire departments. The vote was on a motion made by At Large Councilman Sid Ruckriegel to approve the cuts. Voting no were Beth Jensen, Jim Montelongo, Chuck Grayeb and Denis Cyr.
During the four plus hour-long special meeting, council members spent hours discussing and debating ways to plug holes without crippling day to day operations. Cutting 22 firefighter positions and taking $1.1 million out of the police budget would have a definite impact, said the chiefs of the two departments.
Fire Chief Ed Olehy said that adjustments that have been proposed would place Peoria's fire department at its lowest staff in 30 years and mean longer response times for citizens in the southern valley, Downtown and the Bradley University area. He said that computer studies indicate a two-minute difference in travel time without Engine 2.
Fire safety and educational programs will be reduced, said Olehy, adding that insurance costs are likely to increase if the cuts are approved.
Interim police Chief Loren Marion III said a police force that currently has 212 employees would have 205 at the end of the year. Fewer tickets will be issued, fewer seizures of drugs and contraband and a longer wait for officers to reach an accident site would result, he said.
That 7-4 vote wasn't the final vote and there are several hours of discussion and debate left before the final vote occurs later this year. Still, the vote did signal where some stood.
Grayeb opposed making public safety cuts, warning that public safety and neighborhoods would suffer. At Large Councilman Zach Oyler said if the raising the city's property tax is the alternative, "We might as well put a 'for sale' sign on the city now because people tell me that Peoria's too expensive to live in every day," said Oyler, a Realtor.
"We have to make cuts," he said.
At Large Councilwoman Beth Akeson chided other council members for coming to the meeting unprepared to discuss the budget process, saying the budget packet sent out by the city manager as holding many of the answers that members were seeking. "It's like going to a book club meeting where you know who hasn't read the book," she said.
Revenue recommendations that were previously approved in an advisory vote included a public safety pension fee that would place a $50 fee on property owners of under 5,000 square feet and $300 for properties of over 5,000 square feet. That measure, if formally approved, would raise an estimated $2.2 million.
A 2 percent package liquor tax would raise $700,000 and EMS billing by the fire department would raise an estimated $200,000.
At Large Councilman Eric Turner said the 2 percent tax could hurt Peoria because business would be drawn to adjoining communities like Peoria Heights and West Peoria. "UFS, which probably sells more liquor than anyone in this area, has told me that this would really hurt them. I can't support it," said Turner, longtime head of the city's liquor commission.
City Manager Patrick Urich said that the city has been cutting other departments in recent years and sparing public safety positions. "We can longer afford to do that. Public safety costs (police and fire pensions) are growing faster than anything else in the budget," he said.
Community Development Director Ross Black explained that proposed cuts to his department — a loss of four positions — would impact customer service to the public. Code enforcement staff would only be available for one-hour meetings and building inspections would take longer, he said.
Council members, after wrangling over budget issues for more than four hours, decided to go over capital projects at a subsequent meeting.
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