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Pension Reforms Top City's 2021 Wishlist for State Lawmakers

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City of Peoria YouTube
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The annual Peoria City/County Joint Legislative Breakfast was held virtually this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to the Peoria area's wishlist for state legislators, there's a lot of needs--from road repairs to renewing tax credits. But one item clearly comes in as the top priority. "Our number one item that has to be addressed. It needs to be in the largest font on that piece of paper. And it needs to be bold. And it needs to be underlined. And it needs to be, 'Help us address the pension,'" said Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis.

Public safety pensions remain the city's largest unfunded liability. City Manager Patrick Urich said in 2008, pension payments accounted for 11 percent of the city's operating budget. That's now ballooned to 20 percent--with those obligations continuing to mount in the years to come.

"We believe that at this current pace that we're on, nearly one of every eight dollars that we have in the general fund will be going to support pensions, over and above what we're currently contributing in property taxes towards pensions," said Urich.

He said the city supports legislation to extend amortization out to a rolling, 30-year period beyond the current 2040 deadline set in state statute. The city also is backing legislation to eliminate a 3 percent compounded increase for new hires, starting next year.

State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, said the General Assembly got a good start on reforming pensions last year with a bill to consolidate police and fire pension funds.

"That was a good start, although I will tell you, it's not without controversy," Koehler said. "I had one community that outright called me a communist for taking away their pension money. And I had to try to explain to them what was going on."

Koehler said pension reform is a "huge lift."

"This is a huge bill. I will talk to the Senate president about the possiblity of getting that started," said Koehler, the Senate's assistant majority leader.

Coming to the General Assembly with experience as a mayor, state Rep. Mark Luft, R-Pekin, also said pension reform is a legislative priority.

"We're all dealing with it. Our state's dealing with it. Our municipalities are dealing with it. We've made some good moves in Pekin to try to get that to a better place. So, I do have some knowledge and some experience in that area where I could offer some help, as well," Luft said.

Other priorities

Many items on the 2021 Joint Legislative Agenda from the City of Peoria, Peoria County, and Peoria City/County Health Department are carried over from last year's agenda, which was derailed in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic. The General Assembly met for only a handful of days last year, canceling most of its usual session.

Some of those are direct requests for local lawmakers to sponsor legislation. That includes approrpriations in the state's fiscal year 2022 budget for Rebuild Illinois projects on Main Street ($25 million), the Civic Center ($25 million), the riverfront ($15 million), Lake and Gale avenues ($6 million), Allen Road ($3 million), and a Fire Station/Community Center on Peoria's South Side ($5 million).

They also include city requests for extension on TIF districts and Rivers Edge Redevelopment Zone tax credits.

Peoria County is requesting the ability for non-home rule counties to levy a county motor fuel sales tax (MFT). This comes after Peoria County voters twice rejected referenda to implement a county sales tax to pay for road upkeep in recent years.

"Absent additional funding sources, the county, because of the nature of how counties are structured, really have no additional revenue opportunities to try and make those necessary life-cycle improvements to maintain the road network we are responsible for," said Peoria County Administrator Scott Sorrel.

The county backs a localized MFT of up to 8 cents per gallon.

The city and county also are making their traditional plea for state government to avoid diverting revenues away from local government, and to avoid imposing any new unfunded mandates.

The city is again requesting $4 million in state money to demolish the former Harrison and McKinley schools, long a blight on Peoria's South Side.

"Both of these schools are dangerous and need to be demolished," said Urich. "Currently, state funding is really limited to residential demolition. And these commercial demolitions are really significant in Peoria."

Peoria Public Schools sold both buildings to different private developers years ago. They've changed hands several times since then, progressively falling into worse states of disrepair.

Other requests include $10 million for a new county Health and Human Services Center in Peoria's Center Bluff, $9 million to $12 million for a new parking deck to meet residential demand in the Warehouse District, $10 million to purchase the State Street post office and former Ameren Gas facility on Persimmon to make way for Warehouse District expansion, and $2.25 million to replace roofs at the Juvenile Detention Center and Peoria County Jail.

Both the city and county submitted a laundry list of road projects for consideration, including Pioneer Parkway, Lincoln and Howett, Allen Road, Sheridan, Glen, Prospect, Willow Knolls, Maxwell and Middle Roads, Radnor Road, and MacArthur Highway.

Lawmakers asked city and county officials for a prioritization of those projects for the upcoming year.

The full legislative agenda can be viewed here.

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