City Council OKs Loan For Peoria Civic Center; Effort To Save Fire Engines Fails

Sep 23, 2020

An attempt to reverse the planned budget-related cuts of two Peoria Fire Department engines fell short Tuesday night, after the City Council unanimously agreed to issue $4 million in working cash bonds to keep the Peoria Civic Center afloat.

“We shouldn’t hinder ourselves even farther,” at-large council member Sid Ruckriegel said of the current fiscal year budget during an often contentious five-hour meeting. “We need to close 2020 out, as sad as it is to say, and start focusing on 2021.”

District 2 council member Chuck Grayeb proposed increasing the city’s borrowing to $15 million as a way to save fire department engines 4 and 20, and 22 associated positions.

“I think we have to realize that the lives of our firefighters and our people are at stake,” said Grayeb. “Now some of you genuinely do not believe that.”

That $15 million figure represented an additional $1 million beyond the $10 million proposed earlier this month and the $4 million for the Civic Center. Grayeb made his proposal contingent on the firefighters’ union agreeing to a $500,000 settlement of a pending unfair labor practices appeal.

After firefighters’ union president Ryan Brady said he would need seven days to hear from his members on the willingness to agree to a settlement, the legality of that contingency raised some question, with Sid Ruckriegel suggesting it might be a “quid pro quo.” The council eventually consulted with city attorney Chrissie Peterson in a 30-minute executive session prior to the vote.

“It’s not a quid pro quo; it’s everybody working  creatively to save jobs in the fire department,” said at-large council member Beth Jensen, who joined Grayeb, Rita Ali and Denise Moore in supporting the failed proposal.

“I’ve heard from three council members tonight who said, ‘Let’s just put this behind us; let’s move on,’” said Ali, “‘Let’s just put this behind us,’ like it can just go away that easily. The pain is still there.”

But those who opposed the plan said the issue already had been decided.

“There aren’t any new facts except new borrowing,” said at-large council member John Kelly. “And new borrowing means somehow we’re going to have a bunch of new money. I don’t know where that’s going to come from.”

“We’re acting like there’s a revenue source to be able to pay for this,” added Ruckriegel. “There isn’t unless … you are going to vote for a tax increase, or that you are going to put it on the ballot so that voters can speak on it. Either way, currently we don’t have a long-term sustainability plan to get us through this.”

Money to repay the $4 million, 10-year bond for the Civic Center will come from hotel, restaurant and amusement tax dollars. The Civic Center does not have the authority to issue its own bonds.

“We need to be able to let the Civic Center know and the people know that the Civic Center is going to be here for its next heyday,” said Ruckriegel.

“This sounds to me like a very good proposition,” added Kelly. “This is not actually going to cost City Hall or city taxpayers anything extra. We don’t have anything extra anyway.”

Civic Center general manager Rik Edgar said the money will allow the venue to rehire some employees who were let go, purchase supplies to maintain the facility, and pay outstanding bills.

“Our normal budget [is] closer to $7 million, so we’ve kind of reduced it down to about half with the anticipation of having to pay off our existing creditors,” he said.

Urban decay tax abatement

In another matter, tensions escalated between District 1 council member Denise Moore and Kelly during a discussion of Kelly’s proposal to have city staff begin work on establishing an Urban Decay Tax Abatement area for the Near Northside, Averyville and Far Southside.

“Some of our older neighborhoods are very much in need of new investment and of new population. This particular kind of ordinance has been shown to ameliorate both of those problems,” said Kelly, adding the proposal would “get the ball rolling to gather more information and see if we want to do this.”

But Moore balked at the measure that did not include a rehab component.

“There is no question that there are parts of the first district that could use economic development,” said Moore.

“I suspect somewhere waiting in the wings, there’s some organization, some business person, someone who has a boatload of money waiting for this to be approved so they can move in and gentrify the area. And I’m not going to let that happen if I can avoid it.”

Moore made a motion to table the measure, followed by one to remove the Near North Valley from the proposal. Both failed by 7-3 counts, with Ali and Beth Jensen joining her and Grayeb abstaining due to a conflict of interest. The measure then passed by the same vote.  

Short-term rentals

While the council unanimously approved city code amendments related to the hotel-motel use/privilege tax and the registration of rental property, a third related amendment allowing short-term rentals at owner-occupied properties passed on a 7-4 vote.

“I am vehemently opposed to allowing short-term rentals to be a permitted use,” said Jensen. “I think it sets up very dangerous precedent, especially for older neighborhoods. People who live in neighborhoods should have the opportunity, should have notice when somebody is going to turn their property into a short-term rental and have an opportunity to be heard.”

The initial motion presented by Zach Oyler did not differentiate between owner occupancy and absentee ownership for allowing short-term rentals. Grayeb offered a substitute motion bifurcating the proposal and prohibiting absentee-owner short term rentals. Mayor Jim Ardis joined council members Oyler, Kelly, and Denis Cyr in voting “no.”

Other business

In other actions, the council:

  • Reinstated $100,000 to the 2020-21 budget’s storm water fund for forestry services to cover an increase to an approved contract running through the end of the year with JIMAX of no more than $70,000 for tree and stump removal and no more than $30,000 for emergency tree and brush trimming;
  • Received and filed the 2019 audit prepared by CliftonLarsonAllen; firm partner Adam Pulley reported no findings of accounting errors;
  • Annexed 13 acres of property at 9818 N. Allen Road as requested by KTL Holdings and rezoned the land for use as a business park;
  • Approved a special use requests for: a day care center at Westminster Presbyterian Church, and an Asian carp processing plant and distribution facility at 8606 N. Pioneer Road; and deferred a special use request for a sober living facility at 2419 N. Prospect Road;
  • Deferred action on text amendments to the unified development code related to duplex development and minimum parking space requirements;
  • Amended city code to allow an exemption for “indoor entertainment facilities” to operate video gaming terminals without meeting the 80% food sales threshold;
  • Amended city code related to chronic nuisance property, fair housing and building regulations as part of a negotiated legal settlement with Hope Fair Housing;
  • deferred action on an ordinance amending the city code related to bodywork establishments and tabled a special-use request for a massage parlor at 4241 N. Boulevard Avenue;
  • received and filed communication of municipal compliance reports to the Boards of Trustees for the police and fire pension funds;
  • accepted a total bid of $85,000 from Stark Excavating for repairs to the Prospect Road/Humbolt Avenue retaining wall;
  • amended a site lease agreement for the Gwynn Park cell tower;
  • reappointed Ken Casper to the Public Building Commission.

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