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Q&A: Ali discusses affordable housing, public health, pensions, panhandling, and civic pride

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali frequently has a lot on her mind as the city tries to address its current issues while looking to the future.

Ali has to consider how to develop the two properties where former school buildings will soon be demolished, how to reduce violent crime and get illegal guns off the streets, and how to afford basic city services under a cloud of escalating pension obligations.

In her latest monthly conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali discusses these issues and more, as well as her thoughts on the potential implications of the Supreme Court possibly overturning the Roe vs. Wade decision.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: A leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion indicates an upcoming ruling will overturn the 50-year-old Roe vs. Wade decision and remove federal protections of abortion rights. What is your reaction to this apparent decision?

Mayor Rita Ali: Well, it doesn't surprise me that Roe v. Wade is being reconsidered. I'm actually surprised that it has happened so fast, and very disappointed, I think, with the leak that has occurred at the highest court. I mean, that the entire draft of the (opinion) has actually been leaked out to the public — I don't know whether that was intentional or not — but I think it's certainly a lack of integrity and in poor taste.

What do you think the ramifications could be of something overruling like this, or what might happen next?

Ali: Well, I think that we will have more of a divided country. The fact that the ruling that whether an abortion can happen is going to be pushed to the states, and so some states will support (it) and some states will not. I think even those decisions will be very divided because they will likely be based upon whether you're red state or blue state. So, I think the fact that we likely won't have a constitutional law from the highest court that's consistent for the entire country will, again, make us a little bit more divided.

I hope that it doesn't put women in jeopardy in terms of their health, but I do believe women will continue to get abortions if they are so determined to do that. So, it means crossing state lines, and it may mean jeopardizing their health to some degree.

When you first heard what was happening, what was your personal reaction to the news?

Ali: So my personal reaction was somewhat alarm, because it's so sudden. I mean, we're talking about June, I think, that this could actually — this decision could actually take place in June. So, I think it's very sudden for the country because people have to make decisions. States have to make decisions; individuals have to make decisions, and it's a short transition time.

A couple of weeks ago, you had the presentation of federal grant money for the demolition of the abandoned former Harrison School, and plans are in the works for demolition of the McKinley building as well. What does it mean to finally be able to bring these buildings down to the ground?

Ali: It makes me very happy. Relief for the community; they haven't just been eyesores within our community, they've been harmful to the community, harmful that they've got a lot of toxins inside. People have stripped everything of value out of each of those buildings, and they went further than that. They put in old tires, junk garbage; there's just a lot of garbage inside of these structures that were at one time centers of learning for young children and now they're just abandoned toxins within our community.

So, I'm just happy that they're coming down — in one case, with the help of U.S. (Rep.) Cheri Bustos, who earmarked the money for Harrison School to come down, and the other case is ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding that the city has set aside to tear down McKinley School. So, we look to get those down this year and to re-purpose those areas and turn them into something positive for the community.

As far as re-purposing those areas, when I asked you about the Harrison property and what that might be used for, you mentioned the need for affordable housing in the south side. Would that be the possibility also at the McKinley location as well, and what is the city currently doing to increase affordable housing options?

Ali: So, we have a land bank now where we're actually buying up property where it's property that's contiguous in some cases, where you can actually do something with it and put perhaps multiple residences there that could be eventually owned by residents or leased by residents. But we're looking at quality housing. We do have a South Side Revitalization plan that was passed by the city council not long ago. So, we are looking to add more housing.

As you know, the south side — or the First District, actually — lost almost 4,000 people over the last 10 years, and that's why we had to redraw the (district) maps. So, we are looking to add more quality housing to the south side and working with the IHDA, Illinois Housing Development Authority. We may put out a request for interest for developers who are interested. Senior housing is another possibility; affordable family housing is a possibility. A senior center is a possibility; some cities have centers for seniors, so I like that idea. But we want neighborhood input, and so we're going to have a process of gathering together the residents of that area and ask them, 'What would you like to see in this area, in this space?'

Over the weekend, a group of mothers of homicide victims held a drive to encourage people to trade their guns anonymously for cash. Are you supportive of efforts like this, and what other efforts are the city exploring to get more guns off the street?

Ali: I'm very supportive of this, and the mothers have really stepped up. They've been meeting with the police chief (Eric Echevarria) and his team and some other volunteers for several months now, and when the police chief decided we're going to have a gun buyback program, he said, 'The police shouldn't be the face of this program; it should be the mothers,' and he had been already meeting with the mothers, so the mothers embraced that idea. They have stepped up, they helped to spread the word in the community, and I'm just really grateful for their leadership.

So that's one aspect of a strategy to reduce gun violence. Another is the anti-violence initiative that the police chief has actually implemented. Another is the co-response model that Peoria is one of four cities (in Illinois) that's going to implement, where social workers and police are going to work together in response to domestic incidents in the community. And the other is the community-based solutions for gun violence reduction. We have, through our Safety Network, or “S-Net,” we have over 50 individuals and organizations that are working together, connected (and) working together to provide programming to reduce gun violence — and that's community-based programming, getting residents and community organizations involved in public safety, because we're all responsible for public safety.

At the last City Council meeting, there was more discussion about using Peoria’s ARPA funds, the American Rescue Plan Act funds, for a partnership with the county to address health care disparities. How would that work and when might that happen?

Ali: So the plan is being developed; what we approved was the agreement with the Peoria City/County Health Department to create a plan. So we have the agreement in place and now the planning process (starts). So the city council asked, 'What are the specific programs that are going to take place? What are the specific initiatives?' Well, we don't know yet. But we do know that they're looking at the social determinants of health. They're looking at the inequities that are based upon race and ethnicity. We are looking at the disparities, what are the baseline — what is the data telling us, and then what types of outcomes are we expecting? Based upon those outcomes, I think that's where you begin to design the programming.

Peoria remains under a cloud of its pension obligations, taking up a major portion of the city's annual revenue. How can this be addressed?

Ali: You know, people say that extending the date that we have to meet our pension liability is just kicking the can down the road, and in some sense, that's true. But in another sense is providing the needed relief that we need right now in order to still continue the level of services that people want and people need. So it's just kind of like refinancing your house at a lower interest rate, we need some relief so that we can continue to provide city services to our taxpayers. So, the Illinois Municipal League and others have really tried to work with the legislature to extend that date from 2040 — that's our obligation date to get caught up on our mandated liability — to push that out to either 2050 or 2060. It provides some additional time, and they're also pushing for a lower rate from, I think, 90% to 80%.

Last week, the city announced a new round of government funding for small businesses called the RISE grants, or “Recovery, Income, Startup, and Expansion.” How do these grants work, and how will they help the city's economy rebound from COVID-19?

Ali: Well, from what I can recall about the RISE program —and I'm very excited about it for small businesses — is that a business can request up to $50,000 in primarily capital expense — not operating expense, but capital expense — related to their business. And I think is going to be (where) some of those expenses could have already occurred, and they would apply for reimbursement or apply for looking forward to how they would use those expenses. So, I'm very excited; this is a program that was issued through the state of Illinois, and it's going to help our businesses, too. So, I want to encourage Peoria businesses to apply for this funding. I do believe that we won't quite have enough for everyone who wants it. So, I really encourage small businesses to find out the application process, it’s going to be posted on our website, and don't wait. Don't procrastinate, apply early.

Another topic brought up at the last council meeting was panhandling and how it's creating a nuisance and a public safety issue. What actions can the city take to try and cut down on panhandling, given the ACLU’s protection of it in some ways?

Ali: Right. I think everybody in our community has seen the increase of more panhandlers, and they're all over the city; they're not in just one section of our city, they're all over the city. The concern is that many of them are in the intersections, they're right there in the dangerous part of traffic. So, people are concerned about their safety. They're concerned that somebody might accidentally hit one of the pedestrians with a car, one of the panhandlers with their car. We don't want injury or harm caused to anyone, and we don't want our drivers put in a position where they may potentially hit someone. So, there's going to be signs that are put up by the police department and public works. They're going to try to enforce the prevention of panhandlers who are obstructing traffic.

What about possibly helping these people with services they may need so that they don't have to panhandle?

Ali: That's a very good suggestion that you have there, and we're talking about that. We're meeting with agencies that provide support and resources for some of the individuals who are out there. Sometimes they accept it, and sometimes they don't — and that's the problem that we have. Sometimes individuals have chosen this as a way of life, and they are not interested in the shelter that may be offered, in the food or the other resources. So, that's really a challenge for us, when people say, 'No, this is where I want to be. This is what I've chosen.'

What's the latest news on the possibility of bringing passenger rail service to Peoria? When will we start to hear more about whether it's considered a viable opportunity?

Ali: The feasibility study is wrapping up this month. We actually expect to hold a news conference possibly this week to announce all the details, in terms of the wrap-up of the feasibility study, the ridership study, the interest study that went out that had over 31,000 responses — the details of the answers to those, how people answered those 10 questions. My sidekick who is helping to co-lead this, former (Transportation) Secretary Ray LaHood, is back in town, and so we've been working on plans to launch a news conference.

Last week, the Peoria Rivermen won the Southern Professional Hockey League's President’s Cup for their first championship in 22 years. What does a pro sports team achievement like this do for civic pride in the city?

Ali: It really accelerates the pride and, I think, loyalty to our team. I mean, the fact that they brought home the Cup is just a great thing. So I'm very excited, very proud that the Rivermen are part of our community. Congratulations to the team, as well as to all the fans.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.