Split Peoria Heights board backs away from exploring contract with Peoria Fire Department
The Peoria Heights Board of Trustees has officially abandoned any pursuit of a fire services contract with the Peoria Fire Department.
Following an hour of impassioned public comments during Tuesday’s meeting, the divided village board formally approved a motion that rescinded its July 18 vote to explore a contract with Peoria.
“I think the citizens of Peoria Heights have spoken quite loudly, and what they want us to do is invest in their fire department,” said trustee Brandon Wisenberg, who made the motion to reverse the earlier vote.
Wisenberg made the same motion at the Aug. 1 meeting, but village attorney Mark Walton said that vote was invalid because it was not on the agenda in advance.
Trustee Matt Wigginton said he would’ve preferred to keep all options on the table and that he’s unsure what course Peoria Heights will pursue now.
“We'll have to wait and see what comes next, but what option moves forward is a real mystery to me,” said Wigginton. “I worry about the lack of momentum when it comes to public safety, as chairman of the public safety committee. But that's the route we took today.”
Many among the parade of public speakers were adamant in opposing a deal with Peoria. Comments like “Peoria Heights folks want to keep their fire department” and “support and grow our village services” drew boisterous applause from the packed room.
The vote came down 3-2, with Wigginton and Beth Khazzam opposed. The board was short one member with Mark Gauf not attending after submitting his resignation.
Wisenberg said he could not provide any details about a citizen-driven effort toward the possible creation of a Peoria Heights fire protection district. But he said another option that’s more likely in the immediate future is bringing on some paid firefighters alongside the volunteers.
“I think from here, what we do is form a ‘duty crew,’ which is what a lot of volunteer departments have done in this area,” said Wisenberg. “Hire staff to supplement their volunteer crew, which has been the fire department’s plan since 2019; it’s something they still support and it’s something they're still advocating for. Moving forward, I think that's the direction we're going to go.”
Mayor Mike Phelan said he also favors the “duty crew” idea, but the first priority has to be hiring a replacement for former fire chief Donovan Thompson, who resigned earlier this year.
“My hope is I'd like to make a recommendation at the next board meeting for the approval of a new chief,” said Phelan. “He'll be tasked with hitting the ground quickly and making recommendations to the board and preparing the budget for what this is going to cost. But we need to take quick action to get a duty crew up and running.”
But Wigginton expressed doubts the duty crew possibility is a feasible solution.
“Maybe in the short term it could be. I think that ultimately, (it’s) what can we afford?” said Wigginton. “When hiring public employees, you have to think long term and what kind of financial impact that will make upon not just our current board, but future boards 10, 15, 20 years down the road. I don't know if that is something that our village of around 5,500 (residents) can afford long term.”
In his resignation letter read by clerk Stephanie Turner, Gauf said “ongoing personal health issues” led to his decision to leave the board.
“I was extremely disappointed; I've known Mark all my life,” said Phelan. “As a resident here in Peoria Heights, I've served on a lot of boards and he was one of the finest and most capable people. He had to make that decision based on his health, so I respect that and wish him nothing but good health in the future.”
Wigginton cast the single vote against accepting Gauf’s resignation.
“I think he could still be here. He was a personal friend,” said Wigginton. “That only had to do with losing a real respected voice on this board. I think he'll be needed in the future. I still look toward his guidance and I plan to call him for votes in the future.”
Phelan said he plans to nominate Jen Reichert as Gauf’s replacement at the next board meeting.
“I had a long list, and there were quite a few reasons. But she is the daughter of a former volunteer fire chief,” Phelan said of Reichert. “She works at the school here. She's very active in the community. She's helping lead the celebration for the 125th anniversary of Peoria Heights, and her mother also previously served on the board. I think she's got the skill set to help tackle these issues before us, especially the issue when it comes to fire service.”