PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The city of Peoria’s Fire Department has been seeing an unsettling trend over the last 24 months.
Firefighters said the department’s had more resignations in the past two years than in the past 20 years.
“In the past year and a half to two years, we’ve seen nine members resign from the department,” Fire Chief Tony Ardis told WMBD. “That’s unheard of.”
Ardis recently said that number has grown to ten. For a little more perspective, he said he recalls only two resignations in the past 20 years.
He said there are also fewer people applying to join the department and they haven’t been able to hire since 2018.
“In 2014, we had 214 positions, today we have 177,” Ardis said.
Ardis said the biggest reason he’s heard for members deciding to voluntarily walk away from the department is job security. He said the city’s recent budget cuts and the string of layoffs left members worried if their jobs would always be there.
Ardis also said firefighters pay close attention to the city council’s decisions and were bothered by the council’s actions last year.
“The council debated for about two hours what the acceptable length of grass was in vacant lots and when the council was discussing eliminating 22 more firefighter positions, after six minutes there was an attempt to stop the discussion,” Ardis said. “So in their [firefighters] point-of-view, grass in an hour and 55 minutes more important than firefighters.”
Justin Siekmann is a former Peoria firefighter who resigned in August of 2020. He said for the past two years newer firefighters have been faced with one of two choices.
“They’re either faced with the threat of being laid off and losing their job or given the promise that if enough vacancies exist or created through retirements, they’ll be working in increasingly unsafe conditions as a result of the reduced resources and manpower,” Siekmann said.
He said it soon became not a matter of “if” but “when” his job would be next, which made him feel less valued.
“It is a very hollow, unsettling feeling to know that you’re showing up, giving your best every single day only to have looming over your head, especially as a newer member, that your job in three weeks, three months, might not be there,” Siekmann said.
He said still loves and respects the city, but these choices made his tough decision to leave all the more easier.
“I just felt the best decision and most secure decision for me was to seek employment elsewhere at that point,” Siekmann said.
While the city has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic rocking its finances, city manager Patrick Urich said he sympathizes with firefighters, but said the issue of budget cuts goes beyond just their department.
“I really understand the concerns, but the rest of the city hall and the rest of our employees throughout the city government are feeling that same pain,” Urich said.
Urich said the city simply doesn’t have the money to support the level of spending that’s been standard in the past.
He told WMBD the city has actually lost 145 positions over the last 10 years with city hall taking the biggest hit.
“If we were to have all 145 of those positions back, our budget would have to be $18.5 million higher than it is today,” Urich said
He blames a 20-year decline which includes higher costs, dropping revenue, and population loss that he said only growing the economy will fix.
“Economic growth is what’s going to help us. We need the help of the state to help with some of the bigger issues,” Urich said.
Urich said until then, things like public safety cuts are unavoidable putting even those who protect families and homes from fires on the back burner.