Q&A: Ali prioritizes business and population growth, infrastructure needs as budget talks approach
Peoria city leaders are wrapping up a five-year strategic plan that will help guide the annual budget discussions over the next two months.
Mayor Rita Ali says encouraging business and population growth, revitalizing the downtown area, and improving infrastructure throughout the city are among the top priorities.
In her latest monthly interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Ali talks about what Peoria must do to maintain a strong financial position.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Over the past several months, we've heard both you and City Manager Patrick Urich say that Peoria is in a good financial position. How do you make sure the city maintains that strong position for years to come?
Mayor Rita Ali: One thing, we have to continue our business development; we have to continue trying to increase our population in Peoria, and I think we do that (and) we're on the right track. We do that by engaging the residents in being a part of our strategic plan. Our strategic plan is designed to improve business, to improve residential affordable housing, residential downtown. So we have lots of opportunities, I think, to continue to have a stable budget moving forward.
You mention the strategic plan and obviously the (city) council is going to be getting that finalized. The other top priority will be working on the budget for the next fiscal year. What areas do you think Peoria should focus its expenses on to be better serving the citizens?
Ali: Over the last five months, we've been working on the strategic plan, and the strategic plan is designed to drive the budget – because you have to have a plan for the budget, and that's what the strategic plan is. It has resident input, resident involvement. We've been listening, we've been engaging, and we've established six priorities – strategic priorities – for the next five years. Well, those priorities will be priorities that the budget will support. So that's why this planning process is so important, and that it takes place prior to the finalization of a budget because they have to work together.
So, some of those priorities are to continue to invest in crime reduction, gun violence reduction, supporting technology that supports crime reduction, improving the quality of life for our residents. Another strategic priority is the development of downtown. We have five different (council) districts, but everybody, all the council representatives – including at-large and district – are committed to the development of downtown. We all own the downtown, and everybody wants to see improvements. We know that a thriving downtown connects to a thriving city.
So those are three of the six priorities. Others (are) continued investments in equity; also continuing to support our infrastructure. For the last two years, one year we had $60 million investment in our roads, our infrastructure, (and) the next year, we had $65 million. So we've been making significant investments in improving our roads and infrastructure – our sidewalks, our underground pipes, and so forth. So we want to continue to build Peoria to be strong, physically, environmentally, financially sound.
You mentioned infrastructure, so specifically what projects or upgrades do you think should be prioritized?
Ali: I think those roads that are – most of them are major roads that we haven't invested in in many, many years. Two that I can think of that stand out, they’re owned by IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation) but they’re a priority and those are Lincoln and Western. A lot of people take to-and-from the airport, these roads, and they've been really damaged and in ill repair for a very long time. We cannot fix those roads; that's going to be an IDOT project. From what I understand – and we work together with IDOT on a regular basis – those are going to be priority repairs, hopefully, in the near term.
But there's other roads, some of them that we've done some milling and overlay and we'll go back in the future years ahead to do a total reconstruction of some of those roads. But we've made a lot of improvements, but we haven't gotten to everyone. So we have a capital improvement plan; we're continuing to follow that plan. Some roads are higher priority than the others, but winter always shakes us up a little bit.
You mentioned that another one of the priorities identified in the strategic plan is to encourage business and population growth as a way to increase tax revenues. What do you think are the best ways to accomplish these goals?
Ali: Well, I think to continue to sell Peoria. You're right, business growth and prosperity is one of our high priorities, one of our six priorities moving forward. So we want to embrace business. We want to support small business; we want to attract new business. I think we really have to show off Peoria (and) continue to tell the good story, the great story about Peoria, encouraging people to choose Peoria and choose Greater Peoria.
We have to, I think, continue to work with consultants, too, that work with businesses when they decide they're going to move to a new location – those “place-maker” agencies and organizations. And our existing businesses, that want to expand, we want to support them in every way that we can. So incentivize, I think, it’s important to us that we want to incentivize. We want to help with our workforce; we want to help to attract new workers as well as retain existing workers.
So there's many ways that we can continue to grow our business population – and back to downtown again, that's another opportunity for us to have both residential and businesses to coexist in Peoria’s downtown. It’s kind of the new culture of downtown development, to have people live in downtown and not just work there, not just shop there.
In recent years, we've seen political divisiveness increase on the national and state levels. While Peoria’s elected leadership positions are technically non-partisan, there is a clear divide in political ideology among the council members. How does the council as a whole – and specifically you, as mayor leading the council – work through these differences to serve the city and accomplish these goals that you’ve mentioned?
Ali: I think we just continue to put the first things first, and try to gauge support around priority issues. It's never always clearly political; it's never always clearly by partisan. Sometimes it is, but not always. And I think that over this past year, we've done a good job at trying to focus on the issues and remind one another that we're not there as Republicans or Democrats or Independents. We're there as non-partisan, elected members of the city council to support the people. So that's my goal, is to keep partisanship out of what we do and to try to work for the benefit of our community.
But how do you bridge the gap when there's a clear difference of opinion?
Ali: I think you don't have to say, “my opinion is based upon my political status,” and it never does come out that way, verbally; I think there's speculation. But I think, again, we try to work through communication and, again, arguing your points not based upon politics, but arguing your points based upon value propositions, based upon what’s best for the community.
So it's through communication, and, again, relationship-building, I think, is important. I've certainly worked to try to improve relationships with every member of the council. We have two great new members of the council, attorney (Mike) Vespa and Dr. Bernice Gordon-Young. They've come on, they've been great listeners, and now they're being great participants and leaders on the council. So I appreciate their participation and I think that the rest of the council members also appreciate the newness of our new council and hearing each other out.