Peoria city council debates ways to fund public safety pensions

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Tuesday night’s Peoria City Council meeting focused heavily on the city’s high pension costs and possible ways to pay for them.

City manager Patrick Urich said the city has been using money from its operating budget to pay for police and fire pensions and they were looking for alternative ways to fund them. He said police and fire budgets are 54% of their General Fund Operating Budget.

One alternative, presented before the council was to possibly put an advisory referendum on the April ballot asking citizens if they would support a property tax increase to support police and fire services or pensions.

Mayor Jim Ardis said he wanted to clarify that they’re not raising taxes, but merely putting the question out there.

“It’s to get feedback from the public saying what are your thoughts about the council potentially using property taxes, an increase of property taxes, to balance our budget,” Ardis said.

The item caused a lengthy back-and-forth between council members. Many expressed their firm opposition in raising property taxes, but still wanted to allow the public the opportunity to give their input.

“I see no harm in putting it to the public and allowing them to give us the opportunity of how they would like us to manage their finances,” Councilman Zach Oyler said. “Because that’s really what this comes down to. This is the people’s money it’s not our money.”

Councilwoman Denise Moore said the question of possibly raising property taxes has come up multiple times and giving the public the chance to have their voices heard on this issue could finally provide closure on the topic.

“It’s not raising a tax,” Moore said. “It’s asking the public the question ‘would you be willing to support this’ and if they tell us “no” in a resounding way then we can put this question to bed.”

Overall, the wording of the question didn’t sit well with a few council members. Councilwoman Rita Ali said if people voted against a tax increase for these services, it could seem as if the public is saying they don’t support the police or firemen.

Ultimately, the council voted 7-4 to have the city manager come back and formulate different questions to possibly place on the April ballot. Councilmembers Chuck Grayeb, Jim Montelongo, Rita Ali and John Kelly casted the opposing votes.

“I don’t think we need to put this on the ballot because it’s a waste of time,” Ali said. “If we’ve been listening then people have already been telling us ‘we don’t want higher property taxes’.”

Kelly said raising property taxes would just put a band-aid on the problem and he wants the city to strategically plan a way for address public safety costs.

The council also voted to allocate $1.185 million to establish a new business recovery program to provide grants to local businesses that were negatively impacted by COVID-19.

They also voted 9-2 to approve the 20-21 budget at its next council meeting Nov. 10.

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