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Q&A: Ali discusses anti-violence efforts, strategic planning process

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali recently discussed the city's anti-violence efforts, emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, and other topics during a recent conversation with WBCU.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali recently discussed the city's anti-violence efforts, emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, and other topics during a recent conversation with WBCU.

A fatal shooting this week on West Beverly Court marked Peoria's fifth homicide of 2022, but the first in more than a month.

After the city saw a record 34 homicides last year, Mayor Rita Ali says a concentrated anti-violence initiative by the Peoria Police Department is having an immediate impact. Police department statistics as of March 3 showed shooting incidents are down 75% compared to a year ago.

In Part Two of a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali discusses an array of topics, including the city's efforts to reduce violence. This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Deacon: What are your thoughts on how effective the city and the police department's campaign to reduce violent crime have been so far this year?

Mayor Rita Ali: I think it's been very effective. In fact, we meet every two weeks, the Safety Network – “S-Net” – with the police (Chief Eric Echevarria) and his team, (and) they give us an update on how things are going. Homicides are down, shootings are down. It's great to see those numbers in green; that means things are going well. We're very proud of the new anti-violence effort put forth by the chief and his team. It’s working.

We also are working on community-based solutions to gun violence, and we're seeing more interest, we’re seeing more involvement. One organization, Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority is the name of it – ICJIA, this organization applied for $200,000 for afterschool programming (and) gun violence prevention, and they were awarded a grant of over $400,000. So those are the types of opportunities that are out there.

There are several grants that are out there under the Reimagine Public Safety Act through the Department of Human Services (DHS); they're beginning to put out requests for proposals that we're responding to. It's a great opportunity, with over $200 million-$250 million dedicated to firearm reduction in Illinois. So we have applied, the city has applied for capacity building funding through the “R3” grant – it’s called “Restore, Reinvest and Renew” grant; the cannabis funding is used for these types of programs.

We've applied to help build the capacity of organizations within the city to be able to apply for grants: assist with the grant-writing, assist them with their planning, their program design, their budgeting, their staffing. Those types of supports we want to give to the community based organizations so they can be more competitive and more effective in their program services.

Are you concerned at all that the success that you've seen through the first two months of the year cannot be sustained, and that we could still see a spike in crime as the year goes on?

Ali: Obviously, the summer months bring on more activity, more people outside, more conflict. So I expect that we're going to see a rise as the weather gets warmer and people get out and about and begin to interface with one another. So it's going to increase, but hopefully not at the same level that we saw last year and the year before.

How might the conflict in Ukraine impact the Peoria area? We're seeing rising fuel costs, obviously. So could there be some impact to the local economy?

Ali: I think that there could. Certainly stocks have already been impacted by this war. It's a global issue (and) certainly global issues typically filter their way down to local economies, local communities. So I expect that we're going to be impacted in some way.

We've already been impacted by people who have tried to travel certain places and having those travel reservations cancelled. It's just a sad situation, and I think with the number of people, the number of refugees that are beginning to go other places, we’re likely to see refugees come to the West and come to the United States as well. I expect that to happen.

Are there any ways that the city can show it support for the Ukrainian people locally?

Ali: Oh, I think so. I think that we have to show compassion. There's a way that we can actually give financially to the humanitarian effort. You can even Google ways that you can give (but) make sure that it's a legitimate organization that you're giving to.

We're seeing COVID-19 numbers continue to trend in the right direction and mitigation efforts are being loosened. How will dialing back restrictions benefit the Peoria economy? Are you concerned that a possible future surge could force us to reverse trend again?

Ali: I'm bracing myself. You know, it looks good to see people out without masks and see those real smiles and not just looking at their eyes. So I think it's going to be good for our economy; our restaurants seem to be doing well. They've kind of restructured to where they can provide for more takeout orders.

Some things I think will not change, that will continue even. I talked with a local pastor the other day who indicated that they're always now going to have a hybrid option. So I think that COVID has taught us a lot. Even with meetings, we're going to continue – except for the meetings that are held under the Open Meetings Act, we probably will eventually have to be in-person for all of those – but we can reach more people sometimes through virtual meetings, and they're very time-effective. So I'm just encouraged that things are starting to taper down in terms of some of the requirements related to COVID.

You mentioned the restaurant industry, and they're still coping with an employee shortage, a worker shortage – and it's not just the restaurant industry. What is it going to take to see more people taking jobs?

Ali: Right. I was talking with recruiters for OSF just last week, and they were meeting with myself and a few other people wanting to get our assistance in recruiting for certain types of jobs. Well, they have over 1,000 openings right now at OSF – 1,000 job openings, so that's pretty amazing, right? We have to develop the skills – we have the people in our community – we have to develop the skills needed for our people to fill the jobs that are currently open. So that means job training through education institutions like Illinois Central College and other providers, through the trades, of course. But we have to get people engaged in training so that we can fill those jobs.

The city of Peoria is going to enter into a new agreement with Peoria County and the Peoria Park District regarding the management of Springdale Cemetery. The 20-year agreement that they've had before is expiring this year. What is the city's responsibility to the cemetery in the new agreement?

Ali: Well, the city owns Springdale Cemetery, the city is the owner. It has been funded primarily, through the last agreement – as you indicated, it was a 20-year agreement that expired – the park district kicked in, the county kicked in the foundation of Springdale (the Springdale Historic Preservation Foundation) has kicked in, and then the city has provided all the other operational costs that were not paid by some other entity.

There are some changes to the agreement. It calls for a 10-year, rather than a 20-year. It calls for some changes in terms of: the city will appoint two additional people (to the Springdale Cemetery Management Authority); it still will be the same number, a count of nine, but the city's appointments will change from three to five, in terms of how many the city will get to appoint to that body.

The park district will own the savanna, that beautiful prairie land that's a part of the Springdale Cemetery, and that's basically to protect it, to make sure it maintains a savanna, that it maintains the greenspace. It's a beautiful, very rare jewel within the state, and I would say even within the nation. So that was something that I'm happy agreement was found between the bodies.

The county will still continue to kick in up to $100,000 (annually) through that agreement. The city will continue to do its part. The park district has an out, if they would want to be released after a certain period of time. There's a cost factor there. But I think it's a great agreement (and) I want to thank Councilman Tim Riggenbach for being involved in helping to pull that agreement together.

So financially what does it cost the city for their share of keeping the cemetery functional?

Ali: I can't give you that exact number. In the past, the park district I think has paid $40,000, the county pretty much an equal number, and then the city has picked up the remaining operational costs. There are some donations that come through the Springdale Cemetery foundation that help to support. But all those other operational costs are picked up by the city of Peoria.

What does that property mean to just the whole region?

Ali: It's so important. We have treasures there, those treasures are people who are part of our history. Ancestors, very important people in our history that are buried there. So this is a gem, a treasure, really, that we need to protect, that we need to upkeep, that we need to maintain. So that's what we're doing, and that's what this agreement is all about.

You know, I took a tour through there several months ago, and it's really a beautiful cemetery. There's a place that's been built up for cremations, where those that have been cremated, their remains can be buried in the cemetery and then there can be a plate put to identify who they are and when they were born and when they pass away and so forth. That's becoming a bigger area actually, because cremations are up. Over the last several years and with COVID cremations have risen significantly.

What are some of the key issues or areas that the city is going to have to address over the next couple months?

Ali: Well, we are going to go through a strategic planning process. Right now we're just kind of identifying the structure and the process for doing that. But we're going to engage key stakeholders – including residents, organizations, financial institutions, community organizations, neighborhood associations – all those key stakeholders, we want them to be involved in the strategic planning process. What do we want Peoria to look like in another 10, 15 and 20 years from now? That's for us to decide as a community, and we want to do it in a way that engages the public.

We know that certain industries are growing. Health care is our largest employment industry: the providers of health care, the biotech industries, we envision those are growing. Information technology areas, innovative and knowledge-based companies are those that I expect to grow over the next several years.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.