Here's everything that's happened so far with the Peoria Heights fire department debate, and what could be next
The Village of Peoria Heights is in a period of uncertainty, as a divided village board charts the path forward for the village’s volunteer fire department.
The structure of the Peoria Heights Volunteer Fire Department is a conversation spanning years.
Trustee Brandon Wisenburg traces the issue back to 2019, with the resignation of former chief Greg Walters. At the time, Walters proposed a model that would bring on a few paid firefighters for a hybrid crew. The village met Walters halfway, bringing on paid chief and assistant chief positions to help build up a volunteer base.
"About a month or so ago, our paid fire chief suddenly resigned,” Wisenburg said. “Then at that point, our village administration, at the direction of, I’m not sure who, it certainly wasn’t me, went out to the city of Peoria for a proposal to outsource our fire department.”
That most recent resignation, of chief Donovan Thompson, sparked another round of discussions. However, Village Administrator and Police Chief Dustin Sutton said the topic has been popping up periodically even longer.
“We’ve addressed this situation, I would say, probably three times in the last eight years,” he said.
After hearing concerns from more than one board member, Sutton said he met with Peoria Fire Chief Shawn Sollberger. The result: a roughly $300,000 annual fire service proposal presented to the village board at a special meeting on June 27.
To be clear, Sollberger said the number is an estimate, based on the frequency of fire calls in Peoria Heights over the last two years.
With those stats in mind, Sollberger said taking on primary responsibility for Peoria Heights' fire calls wouldn't put much stress on the city department's regular operation.
“If that’s fire-related calls, we’re talking about less than one call a day,” he said. “If that’s us going on every single call (including EMS) that would be three or four calls a day. We can assume that and not have a negative impact whatsoever on the city of Peoria.”
It quickly became apparent during these conversations that no member of the village board was excited at the prospect of outright eliminating the 20-some members of the volunteer department. Some citizens called it a part of the community's identity.
At a regular meeting on July 18, trustee Matthew Wigginton proposed exploring the contract, while retaining the volunteer force.
“It’s frankly illegal, without a public referendum, to discontinue the volunteer fire department,” he said. “So, highest priority was to continue and support and assist our volunteers who turn out time and time again for our community.”
A tie-breaking vote from Mayor Mike Phelan moved the plan ahead. The arguments for and against this plan are varied. Supporters point to decreased response times and professional opportunities. Critics see interference from a neighboring government body and a disregard for the volunteers.
But after a meeting on Aug. 1, it may not matter anymore. Trustee Wisenburg said listening to more than an hour of passionate public comments against the contract convinced him to make a motion he didn't plan on making when he arrived at the meeting.
“In light of that, during the meeting, I was just sitting there trying to think, ‘Obviously this is not something that the public is supporting,’” he said. “It’s my job to support and work for the public, so what can I do?”
Wisenburg made a motion to rescind the previous decision. Trustee Mark Gauf had previously voted in favor of the contract, citing public safety, but changed his vote to support a reversal.
While the motion passed, its validity is still uncertain. Wisenburg said legal counsel was absent from the meeting on Aug. 1 and unable to advise the board on the best way to backtrack on the contract. He has requested to add the motion to the board's Aug. 15 agenda.
Mayor Phelan confirmed to WCBU on Monday that Gauf has resigned from the board of trustees. Phelan still expects the board to approve Wisenburg's motion.
“I think we just need to, right now, what I’ve said to some of the board members, we just need to hit pause and take a deep breath,” Phelan said. “The next steps, I believe, need to be, again, hiring the chief and getting the appointment, getting the vacancy filled.”
Phelan cannot say whether or not he'll have a proposed new trustee for the board's approval by the Aug. 15 meeting.
But the question remains: in the absence of a contract, what will the new direction be? A few alternatives have been presented throughout this process.
Wisenburg had suggested a plan based on the option Chief Walters proposed at the time of his resignation. It would bring on three additional part-time paid firefighting positions to create a fully hybrid paid and volunteer department.
“They would work in conjunction with our volunteers,” Wisenburg said. “To kind of fill the shifts that we ultimately find that we have the weakest coverage.”
He estimated the cost at $117,000.
While Peoria Heights Assistant Chief Dalton Carlson tells me there's no recorded instance of the department missing a call going back to 2012, Phelan said the daily staffing is slimmer than some officials are comfortable with.
“I don’t think we can continue under the current model,” he said. “It’s not safe for the residents and it’s not safe for the one firefighter we have, paid firefighter we have in the daytime, to be by himself.”
Of course, the lone firefighter doesn't actually fight fires by himself. Carlson estimates that, after calling for volunteers, the department calls for mutual aid on up to three quarters of all structure fires. Still, he said the department would prefer to invest in its volunteers.
“They’re in this business to help people. They work full-time jobs, they take care of families, children, grandparents,” he said. “They want to help people. They’re devoting time out of their personal life to be here to help people. I’d say it’s extremely important.”
There's been lots of questions about the relationship between the neighboring departments throughout this process. Wisenburg claimed the Peoria department has a "toxic" view of volunteers. Wigginton called for an end to a "turf war" if a contract is created.
Sollberger denied a toxic attitude towards volunteers in his department, saying there's been no documented issues. He does acknowledge, broadly, there can be conflict between volunteer and paid staff in firefighting communities.
“I am cognizant of that, it doesn’t mean I have to live in that space,” Sollberger said. “So, I’ve reached out to every single fire chief that's volunteer in our immediate area, trying to establish some level of relationship with them. Whether or not they accept that, that’s on them.”
After the July 18 meeting, in the last moments of new business, Wisenburg presented emails between Sollberger and Peoria 3rd District councilman Chuck Grayeb. WCBU has acquired these emails for review.
In them, Grayeb expresses a desire to expand fire service contracts to West Peoria and Bartonville's volunteer departments, overcoming their quote "medieval parochialism."
Sollberger said the city is not actively pursuing these departments. He also addresses a line from an email where he said any contract would quote "favor the city of Peoria ultimately."
“Of course I’m gonna come up with a contract that can be positively impactful to the City of Peoria,” Sollberger said. “Then, as I further state in that email, that is mutually beneficial to both communities.”
In the absence of a contract, there has been one other option thrown out throughout this process: creating Peoria Heights' own fire protection district.
However, administrator Sutton doubts this option's feasibility.
“I don’t think the fire district is going to be a logical option, just because of the timeline that that would take to implement,” he said. “That is a lengthy process and I don’t think the board, I know I’m not, I’m looking for something, a quicker solution.”
Whatever new path the board decides to explore on Aug. 15, Peoria Heights also is still actively searching for a replacement for chief Thompson.