On the Record: Mayor Rita Ali talks budget, pensions, future of Peoria

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — History was made in the latest Peoria Mayoral election.

Dr. Rita Ali became the first woman and the first African-American to step into the role.

Recently, Mayor Ali hit her 100th day in office. She joined WMBD’s Matt Sheehan for an exclusive interview. They talked about her first few months at the helm of Peoria government, while also looking towards the future.

Sheehan: There’s been a report that many out-of-state buyers have been coming to Peoria South End, buying homes up for cheap. Do you think this is helpful or harmful to the area?

“It’s very harmful. We need responsible homeowners and property owners. The online auctions had good intent, but bad results. In some ways they’ve been irresponsible for us,” Ali said. “People are buying dilapidated properties, sight unseen. Then they’re not necessarily keeping these properties up. People are complaining that the grass and weeds are overgrown.”

Mayor Ali said because these people are coming from states like California and Arizona, they’re not always able to take care of the property they purchase.

“It’s purchased for cheap. We have to have a better plan for land use. The Land Bank Authority is going to help with that. Help to demolish properties that are eyesores in the community. Identifying properties that might be rehabbed, then put them on for sale,” Mayor Ali said.

Sheehan: Violent crime has been a concern for many Peorians over the last few years. I know there are some initiatives you’ve been a part of since becoming mayor. What are you all doing to make Peoria a safer place to live?

“We’re connecting the dots. Peoria has a lot of resources that will work toward crime prevention. Some of those adjust issues of trauma for family, some are intervention, mentoring programs,” Dr. Ali said.

Mayor Ali said there’s a lot of gun violence and illegal guns on the streets that city leaders want to remove.

“We need to remove the perpetrators. The people who are causing a lot of the problems. They’re a small part of our population. Once we catch them, we reduce crime because repeat offenders are out there. If they don’t get caught, they continue to do the crime,” Dr. Ali said.

Mayor Ali applauded the new police chief, Eric Echevarria, saying he and his team have been working tirelessly to battle crime in Peoria.

But Mayor Ali said there are others to thank as well.

“I called together a group of 50 community leaders who are assisting this process. I call it a Safe-T network. It’s connecting the resources we have. With the Safe-T network, it pulls all these agencies together, informs them, and connects them,” Dr. Ali said.

Sheehan: Some people have called Peoria “Feeoria,” referencing the different fees and taxes that might be on the residents. What’s your and the council’s plan to fix the budget and pension issues?

“Pension is a challenge. It’s something we plan to talk about with our State legislators. Of course, it’s a state and national issue. We need to find ways to manage, and manage indeed is what we need to do. Because it’s becoming unsustainable. We can’t continue at the same rate of debt, pension debt, and liability. So we have to find a way to stop, change, and modify the current situation. But in terms of the budget, we do have some policy sessions coming up,” Mayor Ali said. “We asked the public how we should spend this $47 million in American relief funds and the public came back. we’re going to report out on that at the next council meeting with what the public said. council is paying close attention to that. We are having these policy sessions to discuss how we’re going to spend the funding and then we’ll have additional meetings to prepare for the budget. Hopefully, we’ll have a budget in place by October.”

Sheehan: A big discussion that’s been going on the last couple of years has been about cuts to city staff. Public works, police, and fire. are there cuts the council is looking for next year? We also talked about the COVID relief we’re getting, is that possibly going to help the city retain its staff?

“That’s exactly what we’re going to talk about in our policy sessions. We’re going to hear from the public. We had one virtual open hearing, we had one in-person hearing, it wasn’t very well-attended. But we did hear from many residents in the online survey. In terms of how we should spend this money, and we’ll be able to share this information next week. But we will decide on funding some staffing, we’re certainly going to look at everything. In terms of public works or whether we need to increase the number of code enforcement, increase the number of police or fire, everything is on the table right now,” Mayor Ali said.

The COVID relief funds don’t have to all be spent immediately, Mayor Ali said. The funds can be spread out over the next three and a half years.

“We have to pace ourselves, we don’t have to make decisions on spending all at once,” Ali said.

Since WMBD’s exclusive Town Hall back in March, Mayor Ali has said she wants to bring high-speed passenger rail to Peoria.

Now, nearly six months later, she says this could happen over the next few years.

The Mayor says city officials are heading to Washington D.C. this fall to meet with Amtrak and transportation leaders to look at making passenger rail in Peoria a reality.

Recently, Mayor Ali announced a “pre-feasibility” study would have to happen before Peoria could be added to a rail system. She says this process is moving along quickly.

“This study that would normally take a year, we’ve asked to be cut down to 6 months. Put it on a fast track, they’ve agreed to work toward putting it on a fast track. So hopefully we’ll get that study completed by the first quarter,” Mayor Ali said.

The Mayor says she wants Peoria to have a rail system that isn’t just a “dead end.”

She says anything is on the table. Whether it be riding to Chicago or Indianapolis that could join a rail system that takes you across the country.

Mayor Ali said economic development and population growth is a priority for her.

“We need to work with key partners to have a strong strategy for attracting new companies,” Dr. Ali said. “I’ve been meeting with a good number of potential companies that are looking to come here.”

Dr. Ali said she has joined the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council’s executive committee.

“I plan to be a champion for Peoria in terms of economic development, job growth, and population growth,” Dr. Ali said.

Dr. Ali said the Warehouse District specifically is getting a lot of attention.

“There are a number of properties that are being purchased there, a number of business propositions on the table. I couldn’t believe the number of businesses who contacted me to talk about their proposal about business and entrepreneurship in Peoria,” Mayor Ali said.

But Peoria’s downtown is a different story. Mayor Ali said she wants the “main streets” of downtown to be bustling with business.

“We have to focus on our central Illinois district, the main streets. We have to have new opportunities, new positioning, and new strategies. The Distillery Lab will launch soon, opening spring 2022,” Ali said.

Distillery Lab will open in the old Thomas Building, which used to be owned by Illinois Central College.

“They have plans for having 200 people in this building. Entrepreneurs of many different types, especially high-tech,” Ali said.

Sheehan: You also said you’d like to revitalize the Peoria Riverfront, have there been any developments to achieve that goal?

“We want a riverfront that has open space for people to enjoy,” Ali said. “Peoria just has to have a strategic plan for how we want our vision to be for the city. We’re going to have a comprehensive strategic plan.”

Ali said this will take several months, but city leaders will look for residents, stakeholders, and business leaders to have a voice in this process.

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