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Second round of Peoria violence prevention grants controversial for some city council members

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The latest round of Peoria's violence prevention funding recommendations had to be broken into six individual votes.

The City of Peoria recently doled out $1.4 million in grants for six violence prevention initiatives, but some members of the Peoria City Council are questioning how those anti-violence dollars are being allocated as the city copes with a wave of summertime unrest.

Thefirst $700,000 round of grants were relatively uncontroversial. But at last week’s council meeting, the six recommendations from the city’s Community Development Block Grant commission for the second round of funding had to be voted on individually as members raised skepticism about some of the requests.

2nd District representative Chuck Grayeb took issue with an application from Peoria Public Schools in particular. He claims the schools are unequipped to utilize violence prevention funding while allegedly dealing with widespread behavioral issues.

“So to give them anti-violence money while they’re having problems controlling student conduct at many of their sites,” Grayeb said. “Strikes me as being absolutely ridiculous.”

Grayeb questioned the efficacy of some of the tactics used in programs like the school districts' "Getting to the Roots" application. He specifically noted the inclusion of literacy programs, which a representative of the district explained.

“She tried to explain it, she said ‘you know if they get behind, they could be frustrated, they might drop out, they might be involved in violence,’” Grayeb said. “That’s kind of several steps removed. So, yeah, I did have some heartburn with that.”

At-large council member Zach Oyler shares the heartburn over programs targeting risk factors like literacy. He worries they lack immediacy.

“Those are ten years out, in some cases. We have a crisis right now in front of us that we are not effectively dealing with,” Oyler said. “We have an issue that needs to be dealt with and this funding is to deal with that issue. It’s not to deal with ten years from now.”

A statement from Peoria Public Schools clarifies the literacy program is one of three parts to the "Getting to the Roots" funding. It will also be used to provide family counseling and support to Kindergarten through 4th Grade students showing violent behaviors. The third part is a series of activities for 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 7th graders, as well as Freshmen and Sophomores, covering topics like conflict resolution, gun safety, theft and bullying.

Many of the programs funded in both rounds target causes that experts say lead to violence down the road, like truancy and mental health.

When asked to present alternative violence prevention programs, Oyler says he would like to redirect the question to Police Chief Eric Echevarria.

“But that conversation didn’t happen,” he said. “So we’re giving dollars away to programs that, A. Don’t meet what I think are even remotely critical needs to address this imminent issue, but B. We’re not talking to the person that we employ to tell us how to deal with it.”

Oyler also voiced his support for victim care programs like those provided by Peoria Community Against Violence. Earlier this week, PCAV leaders announced they may have to close their doors later this year without additional funding.

Grayeb says he would like to see more of the funding directed to youth workforce training programs.

“I do believe idle hands are certainly the workshop of the devil,” he said. “And that may seem like an old fashioned concept. But you keep kids busy and you have mentoring and things of that nature.”

Programs like the Friendship House's Pathway to Your Future and the previously funded Dream Center Peoria Youth program do touch on these areas, providing young people with opportunities to get certifications and learn skills.

Grayeb also says he would like to see more resources dedicated to the police department, to further recruitment efforts and "soft policing." That includes things like community outreach and walking the neighborhoods.

At-large council member Mike Vespa is less worried about the contents of proposed programs.

“I wouldn’t support 100% of funds being used for 2nd grade reading when we’re trying to fight violence,” he said. “But yeah, I can see a causal connection there. It’s not too difficult to connect those dots for me.”

He does point out some groups, like Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois and the Peoria City/County Health Department, received grants in both rounds.

“But that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Vespa said. “If these programs are doing well and are producing results. I would like to see some concrete results sometime in the near future.”

A representative of Goodwill says the grant will be used to fund the next six months of their Revive youth mental health program. At $54,000, it's less than half the size of any other grant in this round. The health department's $400,000 grant is slated to continue the implementation of Cure Violence on Peoria's East Bluff, and get efforts started on the south side.

Vespa floated the idea of adding a built-in reporting mechanism, or penalties for applications for organizations who have already received funding. That was a feature also suggested by at-large councilman Kiran Velpula at last week's city council meeting.

Oyler shares tangential concerns, focused on the way the applications are evaluated with scores.

“I object to that, I think that we need to use our own critical thinking and have a conversation about the fact that here’s the issue, here’s the money, how should we really spend it?” he said. “How do we think we’re going to get to the end goal? I don’t think the end goal is addressed by how we allocated that money.”

Organizations and programs were scored by the CDBG commission using criteria previously approved by the city council. It's likely the city council will hold a future policy session to revisit those guidelines.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.