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Facilities and employee retention come in high on list of priorities in Peoria County's new strategic plan

Kristin McHugh / WCBU

When a government draws up a strategic plan, what it's really doing is making a list of the top priorities.

Peoria County is in the process of adopting a new strategic plan. It's a roadmap the county has lacked since 2016.

"Literally, within a couple of months of adopting it, we had a financial downturn. And that really kind of forced the organization to put that strategic plan, literally, on the shelf," said Peoria County administrator Scott Sorrel.

Planning for the current strategic plan began in 2021. The process was paused to accommodate the new county board members coming onboard after the 2022 election.

"We've kind of worked off the broad strategic goals that were in the 2016 plan. But in terms of like an annual work plan, and how we actually go about setting a course of work on an annual basis, really, it's been the lacking point," Sorrel said.

The county board is set to adopt a new strategic plan at its Aug. 10 meeting. The plan was compiled by Northern Illinois University's Center for Governmental Studies.

The plan circles around five basic themes: infrastructure maintenance and improvements, financial stability, community investment, workforce and organizational development, and intergovernmental and regional collaborations.

Sorrel estimates the county has between $20-30 million in maintenance needs for aging facilities.

"Where we're at now, in terms of what we're going to do to be prioritizing some of those projects, and then identifying some updated costing so we can start to budget for them, is we've brought on a contracting consultant that deals specifically with capital improvement planning," Sorrel said.

That consultant, construction contractor Bob Unes, was hired to manage capital improvement projects through the end of 2026, at an annual fee of up to $100,000. Unes will inspect county facilities and compile an inventory of needs.

The remaining balance of the county's $34.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds will play a role in addressing those needs. Those federal funds must be committed by the end of 2025, and spent by the end of 2026.

But otherwise, Sorrel said there aren't many federal or state funds available, so the sourcing will need to be local. Sorrel said the county board is "adamantly opposed" to raising property taxes to pay for capital improvements, unless it's voter-approved, like the public facilities sales tax that expires at the end of this decade.

Other options involved tapping into a nest egg, and taking advantage of savings from bond refinancing. Cannabis sales and gaming revenues from unincorporated areas of the county may also play a small role in the overall mix.

"The challenge is going to be what recurring and sustainable revenue source is going to be in place at the end of the decade, so that we will be able to continue to do the necessary capital improvements to our facilities and our buildings going forward," he said.

Employee recruitment and retention is also listed as a long-term goal for Peoria County. The county government has 660 positions, 10% of which are usually vacant at any given time.

Sorrel said changes to have changed the appeal of working for local government. A new employee must work for ten years to become vested, and work through their mid-60s to receive full benefits.

"When I entered the workforce, 30 years ago, the the local government pension was a very attractive tool for new hires. That's not necessarily the case today," he said.

In an employment landscape where most workers now shift careers several times, Sorrel said there's less incentive for employees to stay longer-term.

"So we've got to be creative on how we attract and retain our workforce and offering the opportunity for advanced education, offering the opportunities for certifications so that they can further their careers within our organization, or, you know, just a couple of the many things that we're doing to attract and retain a highly qualified and highly engaged workforce," he said.

Sorrel said the challenging post-COVID employment landscape provides another reason for the county to double down on retention efforts. Peoria County correctional officer staffing levels are a particular sore point.

"We're having a really hard time recruiting for that position. And that means that the correctional officers officers that we do have are having to work more hours to make up the difference," he said.

He said he's optimistic that programs like the Peoria police co-responder pilot model might shift the needs at the jail.

"That's a critical way of policing where we don't have to treat our jails as mental and behavioral health hospitals or facilities. So hopefully, it's gonna change over time. But it's not a quick fix," he said.

Sorrel said the next step once the strategic plan is approved is to put together individual work plans with metrics and milestones for each of the 19 goals identified. A small work group will also create a new vision statement for the county.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.