Peoria Heights Board of Trustees votes to pursue contract with Peoria Fire Department
The future of the Village of Peoria Heights Fire Department includes a contract with the Peoria Fire Department.
Ultimately, Mayor Mike Phelan broke a 3-to-3 vote at the emotionally charged meeting Tuesday night. He voted in favor of a model that maintains Peoria Heights’ department while also entering the contract with Peoria.
The structure of the primarily volunteer department first came into question after the resignation of Chief Greg Walters in 2019. At a special meeting in June, Chief Shawn Sollberger of the Peoria Fire Department presented the village board with a potential contract for fire service. The contract carried an estimated annual cost of $300,000.
Some board members and citizens voiced concerns the contract would mean the outright elimination of Peoria Heights’ fire department. The special meeting ended without the board reaching a consensus on that issue.
At this week’s regular board meeting, trustee Matt Wigginton proposed a plan to maintain a volunteer fire department, while also entering a contract with the Peoria Fire Department.
“It will be more expensive but it’s paying for public safety,” he said. “But if we don’t pay for public safety, what are we paying for?”
Trustee Brandon Wisenburg, however, suggested an update to the village’s stand-alone fire department. The plan would add three part-time, paid firefighter positions at a cost of about $117,000.
“We currently get the support of other communities right now, at no cost,” said Wisenburg, referencing the mutual aid agreements common among fire departments. “So I don’t get why we would enter into a plan to pay for services we currently receive at no cost.”
Wisenburg went on to question the effect a contract would have on the ranks of current volunteers.
“It would have a devastating effect on the morale of our volunteers and make recruiting new volunteers more difficult,” he said. “Especially considering the toxic opinion the Peoria Fire Department has of volunteer departments.”
Other board members were critical of the decision to invest money in the contract rather than using the same funds to expand the volunteer department.
“I don’t see how option one works,” said trustee Sarah DeVore. “I think it’s kind of a slap in the face to the department we already have.”
Wigginton sees this as a mischaracterization of the plan. He believes the partnership would broaden the professional opportunities for Peoria Heights' volunteer firefighters. He also pointed to decreased response times promised by the City of Peoria as an advantage. Other trustees found the decreased response times compelling, while mayor Phelan said his tie-breaking vote hinged on that.
“I think in the event, God forbid, that someone has a fire at their house or an emergency, I don’t think you care who shows up,” he said. “You want the fastest response to get to your residence in the event of an emergency.”
Trustee Beth Khazzam proposed an amendment, adding an advisory referendum to the next municipal election to “take the public’s temperature” on entering the contract. The amendment failed on a 4-2 vote.
Trustees Khazzam, Wigginton, and Mark Gauf voted along with mayor Phelan in favor of a contract. Trustees Devore, Wisenburg and Jeff Goett voted "no." With the passage, the board did not hold a vote on Wisenburg’s proposal.
Several volunteer firefighters from Peoria Heights and the surrounding area watched the vote from the audience.
“Obviously, we support keeping our money in the village of Peoria Heights and supporting our department,” Peoria Heights Assistant Fire Chief Dalton Carlson said after the meeting. “That being said, obviously, the board members have chosen the direction they want to go. We’ll be more than happy to explore that direction. We do have a good working relationship with the City of Peoria, so we’ll have to see where that goes.”
Carlson said he can’t say for certain whether the contract will have an affect on the morale and size of the roughly 20- person volunteer force.
“We’ve worked well with them on fire scenes,” he said. “The current mentality still, in the county, that I feel is they don’t want to work with us and we don’t want to work with them. Again, can’t say that for here, specifically. But I do believe that prospective volunteers would take that into account.”
Before the end of the meeting, Wisenburg expressed his frustration with the mayor’s vote. He went on to reference emails between City of Peoria officials, which he claims include disparaging remarks about the quality of the Peoria Heights department. WCBU is working to obtain them.
“Entering a contract with the City of Peoria is like entering a deal with the devil,” Wisenburg told the council. “This is a mistake.”
Exact details of the relationship between the departments are still to be determined. Mayor Phelan said the next step is for the cities’ attorneys to meet and draft a contract to bring before the board at a later date.