Peoria public safety pension ballot questions: residents asked if they’d support an annual tax increase to help fund them

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — To support or to not support a property tax increase?

These are questions Peoria taxpayers will have to answer Tuesday, April 6, regarding helping to fund police and fire pensions.

City leaders said public safety pension costs are growing by the millions. They said in 2010, the city contributed $10 million to police and fire pensions, today it’s contributing $26 million and by 2040 it’ll have to contribute $84 million annually.

Patrick Urich, city manager, said during the last ten years as they’ve seen the costs increasing, they’ve reduced the city’s operating expenses, cut around 145 positions in the city’s budget, and put more property tax dollars into pension costs.

“We’re at a point now where we really can’t cut operations any deeper, but there’s a cost we still have to bear in terms of covering these pension obligations,” Urich said.

He said after months of deliberation, the city council voted 7-4 to put two advisory questions on the ballot asking voters if they’d support an annual tax increase to help fund the pensions.

“It’s advisory, it’s not binding,” Urich said.

Back in late October, council members went back and forth on the topic.

“This is the opportunity to get that feedback and know what the public expects us to do in the tax arena,” Zach Oyler, At-large councilman said.

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

Ryan Brady, president of Peoria Firefighters Local 50 Union, said he doesn’t support the questions placed on the ballot.

“If this had been worded so taxpayers could voice their concern appropriately and vote on whether they would like to maintain the services they have for police and fire as opposed to retirement security this is a totally different issue,” Brady said.

He said he feels they’re disingenuous questions and unfair to both taxpayers and public safety employees.

“To put the public safety pension fee in the spotlight to push Springfield to do something for your decades of financial misfortune and mishandling really is a slap in the face to police officers and firefighters,” Brady said.

Brady said he believes the voters will vote no and that will be used as an excuse to cut more public safety positions.

Back in October Denise Moore, First District Councilwoman, said if the public votes against the questions, the city can move on and look at other avenues.

“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.”

Urich said this is still a policy decision for the city council to make and if they decide not to raise property taxes or use other revenues to support the pension increases, the only other option would be to reduce expenses.

“It’s going to be really difficult for us to find any additional expense and staffing cuts,” Urich said.

Brady said firefighters pay 9.5% a check into the pension system and said reducing more public safety employees would only worsen the situation.

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