Peoria Mayor Ali pushes back against criticisms of police, fire funding levels
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she doesn’t agree with one city council member’s beliefs that the police and fire departments are not sufficiently funded.
During Tuesday’s budget deliberations, District 2 councilman Chuck Grayeb claimed the police department doesn't have adequate resources to address mental health issues, suggesting that indicates the city doesn't care about its people.
“That's just totally not true. We do care. The council cares. The city is a caring city, so I dispute that remark that we don't care,” Ali said in her latest monthly interview with WCBU. “If you look at where we've made significant investments, over the past couple of years, we've made – oh, my goodness, if you look at the police investments that we made in technology, in equipment, in personnel. We're still trying to get up to capacity in terms of police workforce; we have not met capacity, just because it's been a challenge to recruit.”
Grayeb also suggested the fire department’s lack of a dedicated rescue crew is tantamount to “malpractice.” Ali says she doesn’t think that’s a fair criticism.
“In terms of fire, there was a SAFER grant that the city successfully received for 11 new firefighters,” she said. “That's for a number of years – I think it’s four or five years; I think it's four years – and then after those years have gone by where the federal government is subsidizing, then the city will continue to take on those salaries and those benefits and those pension requirements. So there's been significant investments and public safety over the past couple of years, and of course, we will continue to invest in public safety.”
Ali says it’s important for the 2024 fiscal budget to protect Peoria’s strong financial position that has been bolstered in recent years by pandemic relief, including funding through the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
“Certainly, ARPA has played a role in that providing additional funding to support particular projects and initiatives. But at the same time, we've been very competitive with competitive grants in terms of winning state and federal grants that has helped to increase our budget – for demolition work, housing projects, infrastructure, projects,” she said. “Those initiatives have come about primarily not just through allocations, but through staff working on grant proposals and being successful in that.
“Additionally, we've had additional money from certain sources – and that won't always continue, in terms of property taxes, and certain revenue sources. But I think that we have to continue the path that we have, continue to invest in economic development, invest in the workforce, invest in housing – those types of investments that will help to increase our population, and add to our tax base.”
Ali says a key to revitalizing Peoria's downtown is getting more people to want to live there.
“I foresee the building and creation of a thriving downtown, an urban downtown that has both residential and commercial development. People will live in Peoria downtown – not just in the Warehouse District, but in the downtown,” said Ali, noting that downtown development is one of the six priorities identified in the five-year strategic plan. “This will drive other development, such as boutiques, shopping, retail, pharmacy, possibly grocery. It will draw other commercial development to our downtown area.”
Ali says funding is in place for downtown infrastructure improvements, and she's eager to work with stakeholders committed to downtown development. But she acknowledges people’s perceptions of the area may need to change in order to attract residents.
“We know that there's a demand for housing downtown; there's been a steady, we get feedback,” she said. "But there is still a perception that – we have homeless people sometimes that are camping near downtown or walking the streets of downtown. Sometimes there's mental illness issues that are associated."
“We've really handled that problem with the late night, kind of street partiers in one segment of the downtown. Our (police) chief (Eric Echevarria) has put in place a strategy on Friday and Saturday nights when we've seen the dozens of people hanging around kind of drinking outside and getting into fights sometimes; we've really handled that and we're not seeing that anymore. So again, those types of initiatives will help to improve the perception of the safety of living downtown and the opportunity of living downtown.”
Another priority identified in the strategic plan is Peoria’s quality of life. Ali said workforce development plays a critical role in addressing those quality of life improvements.
“Twenty percent of our residents in Peoria live in poverty. We want to change that,” she said. “We want those individuals who are able-bodied and typically between the ages of 18 and 54, which is considered working age, we want to make sure that they have the skills and credentials to be able to get a job that pays a family sustaining wage so that people don't have our residents don't have to live in poverty.
“We know that there's opportunities. We're working with our educational partners, like Illinois Central College, to refer people and make people aware of the opportunities to get trained – really getting paid while you learn, earning and learning at the same time – and then getting credential so that you can get a decent job in the workforce.”