City Council Reverses Course, OKs Fire Department Cuts

Sep 1, 2020

One week after voting down a plan to borrow $10 million and decommission two fire engines to balance Peoria’s budget, a divided City Council has approved the proposal.

District 5 Councilman Denis Cyr provided the swing vote at Tuesday’s special meeting, changing his no vote from last week as the city staff's recommended budget restructuring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic passed on a 6-5 count.

Credit City of Peoria / YouTube

“I feel I was put in a box last week … and I didn’t react very well,” said Cyr, who went on to reference his pro hockey career in citing a need to “go back to the fundamentals” and noting he was elected on a campaign promise of opposing any tax increases.

The engines slated to be cut are Engine 4 from the South Side’s Jefferson station and Engine 20 on Wilhelm in the far north area of the city. Along with the engine cuts, 17 firefighter positions will be eliminated; however, City Manager Patrick Urich said five firefighters accepting the voluntary separation incentive passed last week could reduce the number of layoffs.

Rita Ali, Denise Moore, Chuck Grayeb, Beth Jensen and Jim Montelongo remained opposed to the fire cuts. Grayeb said the fire department has been “a whipping boy for a long time” that some council members have treated like a “piggy bank.”

Jensen said the fire engine cuts will damage Peoria’s ability to provide the safety a city of its size requires.

“I think it is a false choice that we either have to raise taxes or decommission three fire trucks,” she said, pointing to the hope of another federal stimulus package getting passed. “I don’t think ...  that is really our choice. I think there are more things to look at.”

When asked by Jensen what the consequence of rejecting the engine cuts and additional borrowing, Urich said the budget would become “significantly out of balance” for the next several years. He dismissed the possibility of taking on more debt than the requested $10 million in an effort to save the engines.

“I don’t think you can borrow your way out of it by saying, ‘We’re just going to borrow, put in $20 million and that’s going to help us.’ You’ve got to still pay that back, so that doesn’t do it,” said Urich. “If council doesn’t want to cut, then council needs to find a revenue source to fill the gap.”

Cyr said he did not want to decommission Engine 20. His initial motion did not specify which fire engines would be cut, as he hoped council members could collaborate with city staff and Peoria Fire Chief Tony Ardis to seek cuts that would balance response times throughout the city.

But when other council members insisted on the motion to specify the engine cuts, Cyr amended his motion to give Ardis the authority to make the decision. Moments earlier, Ardis reiterated his position from last week: “If we are mandated to shut down two machines, it is going to be Engine 20 and Engine 4.”

At-large council member John Kelly said he was initially skeptical about which engines were chosen for shutdown, but was persuaded to support the plan when Ardis explained his selections were made with firefighter safety in mind.

Moore questioned Chief Ardis about a report showing Station 4 had a total of 316 responses and 46 incidents in 2019. Ardis explained the number of responses indicates how many machines attended an incident.

“Even looking at the 46 in comparison to all other fire houses, 46 is still close to three quarters more than any other,” said Moore. “The next firehouse had 33, and that was Station 13. So, my case is still being made that Engine 4 is still responding to more fires than any other engine in the city.”

Montelongo, who represents District 4, made a motion to split the question into three votes: one for borrowing the $10 million and one for each proposed engine cut. But the proposal was not seconded.

“Engine 20 is not my district and not my constituents. But I think that is the absolute wrong move for the people in 5th district, especially those who rely on that Engine 20 – the only one that they have,” said Montelongo.

“I just can’t see that being the logical direction to go. We have four firehouses in 1st district, and I think if there’s an area that could be modified, it would be in that district. But the 5th out there, you’re leaving a lot of people without any service.”

Following the approval, council member Zach Oyler made a motion to freeze all unspent capital expenses remaining in this year’s budget. After Urich was unable to specify what projects would be affected, Oyler agreed to defer the motion to next week.

“I expect that we would handle this at the next meeting, because it’s the same pushback, the same deferral that we have executed on every other item for the last several months,” said Oyler. “That hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”

Before the meeting adjourned, Grayeb issued a procedural reminder that council members who voted in favor of the cuts can make a motion to reconsider at the next meeting.

“There will be ramifications with the public response,” said Grayeb. “Of course, there’s ramifications no matter what we do, but we’ll see how this plays in Peoria.”

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