Peoria City Council votes to restore previously cut fire engine

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — In a sudden 6-4 vote, the Peoria City Council took a big step toward the restoration of public safety services Tuesday night.

The council voted to restore one of the city’s fire engines, which was cut in 2020. This would go into effect on Nov. 1.

During the council’s discussion of the 2022-2023 biennial budget, Chuck Grayeb, Second District Councilman, said the city has seen the possibility of civilian casualties due to the reductions in the fire department.

Grayeb invited Jim Bachman, Peoria Fire Chief, to talk about how the fire department’s ability to control fires to its room of origin has decreased since 2017.

“Our data shows that from the beginning of January 1, 2021, and I believe the report ended either the end of August or end of September, but to that point eight months into the year, we were keeping fires to the room of origin 54.5% of the time,” Bachman said. “This affects the entire city to some degree.”

After hearing from Bachman, Grayeb made the motion that “the city council direct the city manager to restore an engine cut by Council action in 2020.”

Grayeb said the engine would be staffed by 11 existing firefighters, via overtime, until the city applies and possibly gets a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant to cover the continued costs next year.

This sudden motion was immediately supported by Beth Jensen, At-large Councilwoman, but got pushback from Zach Oyler, At-large Councilmember, Sid Ruckriegel, At-large Councilman, John Kelly, At-large Councilmember, and Tim Riggenbach, Third District Councilmember.

The unexpected timing of the motion during the budget discussion seemed to be one of the lead causes of the conflict amongst council members.

“I think it is inappropriate right now to do this, we have an entire budget to be concerned with,” Kelly said

“I find it interesting that this was put on the floor tonight to start November 1 because that is, in essence, making a decision for the budget for next year out of the process that we’ve actually agreed to,” Ruckriegel said. “It’s interesting, I think calculated.”

“To not have an advance notice, to not have an agenda item on and to just put it out there …. it’s just, I’ll leave it at interesting.”

Jensen defended the motion saying the motion had to do with positions that were cut due to COVID-19 and said the city is on “good financial ground” to make this decision.

“We’ve restored a number of the public works projects that got postponed or delayed due to what we were facing a year and a half ago because of COVID,” Jensen said. “So, what Councilman Grayeb is proposing and what I’m supporting is just to put that apparatus back that was cut because we were short on funds due to the pandemic.”

Riggenbach said he’d be open to having more discussion on the topic, but he couldn’t support it so suddenly with “sketchy” information. He also disagreed with Jensen’s comment on the city being on good financial ground.

Ultimately, Mayor Rita Ali, Andre Allen, Fourth District Councilman, Denise Jackson, First District Councilwoman, Kiran Velpula, At-large Councilman, Jensen, and Grayeb all voted in favor to pass the motion.

Grayeb said Bachman will decide where the engine will be placed.

In addition to wanting more information on Bachman’s data regarding containing fires to its room of origin, Ruckriegel also brought up concerns of how much the overtime would affect the firefighters.

He said he doesn’t believe council members were given enough time to fully dissect the impact this vote would have and said he felt the council’s hand was forced into this decision.

“I think that the citizens of Peoria deserve the ability to have a full conversation on the overall complete budget and where those services go,” Ruckriegel said. “We all are for public safety, every single person around the council, and we all want to be able to do that in the most efficient way possible.”

Grayeb said the decision creates a safer Peoria.

“Our constituents want a commitment to core basic services, this continues with the commitment that the council made.”

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