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Q&A: Peoria Mayor Ali remains optimistic District 150, teachers’ union will reach an agreement

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali

As contract talks between Peoria Public Schools and the Peoria Federation of Teachers continue to linger, the possibility increases for a work stoppage that keeps kids out of the classrooms.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she believes a teacher's strike is not something either side truly wants.

In her latest monthly conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali discusses a range of topics that include her hopes for a new deal between the school district and the teachers' union. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

A major concern for many residents right now is the contract negotiations between Peoria Public Schools and the Peoria Federation of Teachers. I realize the city is not a party to those negotiations, but there could be broader community implications from a strike, such as childcare needs with students away from the classroom. How concerned are you about the status with the negotiations?

Mayor Rita Ali: I'm an optimist. I've heard some numbers thrown out there; I think they're fairly close. I know that the public seems to think that things may be far apart, but from what I've heard in terms of numbers, I think that they're fairly close. I just hope that an agreement can be arrived at fairly soon. I don't think a strike would actually happen until sometime around mid-October, from what I understand. But yeah, avoiding a strike, I would say, would be good for the community.

And what do you think the prospects are for an agreement? You said you've heard the numbers may be closer than they appear. Do you think there's a good chance of a deal getting done?

Mayor Ali: I think so. I know that there's a strong fight going on right now, and they're getting the public involved, the community involved, sometimes the parents involved. But no one wants kids out of school. I don't think teachers want that, I know that parents don't, and the community does not want that. So a strike is not what we want. Hopefully, we can avoid that and the two parties can really come together and come to an agreement. There would be negative impact to our community should a strike happen; the economic impact, the social impact to our families, to our communities, to our neighborhoods. I just hope that things get resolved sooner than later.

The city recently recorded its 17th homicide of the year, and while that's down a bit from this time last year, it's still a lot. How would you assess the progress made so far in reducing gun violence, and what can be done to improve those efforts?

Mayor Ali: So, improvements have been made. If you look at almost all the statistics compared to this time last year – the homicides, the shootings – all of them are actually down. We get a report, once a month at least, from the police chief (Eric Echevarria) and we're trending better than last year. Of course, it's not what we want; any homicide is a problem. But the community is really working together.

The police chief shared a map of the really hottest spots, those are those red spots in our community, and they're pretty much in certain areas. He's working with the community, and the Safety Network also, in zeroing in on those hotspots, providing some interventions, some wraparound support to those residents within those communities, and of course, applying some hard police tactics as well.

Regarding the Safety Network, what progress has that group been making in regard to the anti-violence programming?

Mayor Ali: Yes, the Safety Network, which meets once a month. I would say (it’s) over 60 individuals and organizations that really are leveraging resources; they're applying for– there are several RFPs, Requests For Funding, that are out right now. They're working together in collaboration to apply for funding to help support mentoring, after school programming, interventions, youth development. So (they’re) applying for funding through the city as well as DHS, Department of Human Services; they have two grants out right now. So (they’re) leveraging resources, working together, making referrals, conducting case management, and really following up in working very closely with the police to reduce gun violence in Peoria.

I know we've previously discussed what transpired with you transferring the S-Net trademark to the city. But what was your initial reasoning behind trademarking that name in the first place?

Mayor Ali: I thought it was a good idea for having a network of community resources that work together to basically share information, leverage resources to reduce gun violence and bring the community together. So when I came up with the name Safety Network and called it “S-Net,” I thought: “You know, someone else may have that name.” So I looked it up and it was not an active trademark, so I preserved it – just like any person that wanted to protect a name would do. So I preserved it.

What would be the advantage of doing that, though?

Mayor Ali: Being able to use it as an initiative without someone saying, “You can't use this name because it belongs to us.”

The city council is asking the state to allow for the use of automated traffic enforcement cameras. Right now, Peoria County is not among the eight counties that can have these red light cameras. There have been some controversies about these cameras in other communities. What is your position on pursuing red light cameras for Peoria?

Mayor Ali: In my opinion, the jury's still out on red light cameras. We don't have the evaluation yet of how they've been performing (and) what good they've really done. In Chicago, there's been a lot of public resistance against red light cameras. We've received a number of emails and communications from both those that are interested in having them or trying them, piloting them here, and also those that have concerns that they're just moneymakers for the city and not really bringing value, and giving tickets to those that really shouldn't have tickets. So, again, the jury's still out. We will be meeting with our state legislators coming up soon to talk to them about carrying that legislation.

How pleased have you been with the work of the city staff since you took office, and what attempts are being made to fill the vacant corporation counsel position on a permanent basis?

Mayor Ali: Well, we have filled that position, corporation counsel, very recently. An offer has been made and accepted, and on Oct. 1 we will have new corporation counsel. I don't know that I can actually release that name yet, so I won't until I check and make sure. But yes, we have hired (someone). It's been a long time; we've been searching for three years and we've had an interim corporation counsel (Chrissie Kapustka) for that long. She's done a great job, but we have a requirement that you have to live in the City of Peoria to be a department head. That's been one barrier for her becoming the permanent corporate counsel.

So obviously, that's an advantage now to having a permanent person in that position in working with the entire staff.

Mayor Ali: Yes, and you asked the question about how I felt about city staff performance and I couldn't be happier. I think that we have a strong management team, a strong city manager (Patrick Urich) and his cabinet of department heads. I think we have exceptional leadership and exceptional staff, and I just appreciate the work that they do. We've been understaffed in many different areas, including public safety. So I just appreciate all the work that the committed city staff have performed.

We've heard a few different thoughts on how the Harrison and McKinley School properties should be developed once the buildings are demolished. There has been some push for creating more affordable housing options, while other people would like to see maybe more open green space. What are your thoughts or preferences?

Mayor Ali: Well, guess what, we have a new opportunity. We worked with the Peoria Area Association of Realtors, PAAR, and applied for a grant – a consultation grant through their national headquarters, and we received that grant opportunity to have consultants come in. They're coming in from all over the country; these are experts in various areas who have done community development. They are going to work with our neighborhoods within the McKinley and Harrison school areas, as well as other key stakeholders, in coming up with some ideas, brainstorming some ideas and some good solutions for what happens to those spaces once the buildings are demolished. So I'm very excited about that and we'll keep you posted on that.

Do you have a timeline on that, and how much was the grant?

Mayor Ali: I honestly don't know the actual amount. It's all consultation, so they're paying for the travel, as well as the lodging, and then the consultants actually provide their time free of charge. They're like volunteers, but then the expenses that the grant pays is mostly their travel accommodations. I've been in a meeting with some of the consultants and they’re people who have done great things around the country. So I'm very excited and it should be happening within the next month or so.

The city council is still deciding the best uses for more than $36 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. I know some of the money will be put toward utility assistance for vulnerable residents. What are some of the other options for this money that you would favor?

Mayor Ali: Well, we had a policy session where we decided basically those areas that we wanted to fund with the remaining COVID dollars – and I call it COVID dollars, but ARPA funding is what I should say. So neighborhood revitalization, I'm very big on that. I think we need to make investments, especially in the older neighborhoods, where the infrastructure is decaying. Smart city, smart street lighting; I'm in favor of getting rid of the older lighting and replacing it with the LED and the smart technology.

Really investments in people: We are going to have some RFPs (requests for proposals) that come out for programming for workforce development. Talent development is very important to us; it's what keeps our businesses running. We need to have skilled staff; we need to be able to attract industries to our area, so we have to have a skilled workforce. So investing in human capital, as well as our infrastructure and our communities and public safety as well.

When you mention neighborhood revitalization, what can the city do to address some areas that have become food deserts?

Mayor Ali: Yes. So both investing in housing – housing is so critical, because if you don't have adequate, quality affordable housing, then people are going to leave. That's what we've seen in our food desert areas on the South Side and the Near North Valley, where there's no grocery stores. We've seen a lack of adequate quality housing. So if you don't have the housing, you don't have the population that supports the grocery stores or the pharmacies or the other retail establishments.

So we have to get the housing right. We have to renovate and restore old housing stock. We have to build new housing; we're very excitedly working with a new developer to develop some affordable housing and maybe even senior housing on Peoria’s South Side. I'm excited about those opportunities, as well as providing funding to homeowners – and possibly renters as well in the future – to actually invest in repairs: repairing roofs, windows, and those things that actually sustain a household.

Lastly, what are the latest developments on the push to bring passenger rail service back to Peoria?

Mayor Ali: We are very excited. I was at a meeting this morning (Wednesday) with Tri-County Planning (the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, TCRPC) and they approved a $50,000 grant toward consultation for application development to get into the Federal Railroad Administration's Corridor Identification Program. The City of Peoria will vote on that next Tuesday, on $100,000 toward that effort. Then we've asked our partners along the rail line (LaSalle-Peru, Ottawa, Utica, Morris, and Joliet) to contribute between $50,000- $100,000. We need to raise anywhere between $200,000-$250,000 to pay consultants to do that economic impact study. And the application development to apply for this program. It’s a critical piece of our next step, getting into the FRA’s Corridor Identification Program. So we're gearing up for that and making really good progress.

So once you're in the Corridor Identification Program, what would follow after that?

Mayor Ali: So after that, that means that we're in the FRA’s pool for infrastructure planning, technical assistance and funding, so that's where we want to be. The State of Illinois is adding the Peoria route to the state Amtrak and passenger rail plan, which is wonderful, that's a big milestone. The feasibility study which showed that our project is both feasible with strong ridership, that was another big milestone. The next big milestone is really getting into this Corridor Identification Program, and we hope to be in there by spring.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.