Meeting Our Governance Responsibilities

Mayor Jim Ardis - City of Peoria

As my fourth term as Peoria mayor begins to unfold, I want to again thank my fellow citizens for this privilege. There are many dimensions to this office, but the most gratifying is the day-to-day responsibilities of fulfilling your trust and confidence. I’ve had the good fortune of working with many wonderful people during my tenure, and before launching into my thoughts about the upcoming budget, it is my honor to say thanks to a great public servant and friend.

Traditions of Excellence
A little over a month ago, Mike McCoy was installed as Washington’s Chief of Police. Mike has been instrumental in raising over $50 million for St. Jude kids. Not only has he been part of 36 years of Memphis to Peoria runs, he has participated in 10 years of the Memphis to Peoria motorcycle ride and five years of the Corvette drive. Did I mention that he is the only living person to have participated in every one?

Mike McCoy is one of those special individuals who constantly look for ways to improve their community and people’s lives. Serving in the Peoria County Sheriff’s Department for 31 years, he improved its professionalism, cooperation with other units of government, public visibility and access. There’s no doubt that those traditions of excellence and service will continue in Washington. More than three decades of dedication to law enforcement is pretty impressive. Thanks for setting the bar high, Chief McCoy.

Sobering Realities
Now, a few thoughts about the city’s upcoming budget discussions. The current cycle will craft our financial plan for the 2018-2019 timeframe—the third time the city has developed and passed a two-year budget. A few weeks ago, the city manager and finance director discussed the sobering reality that nearly $75 million of our $200 million budget is impacted by deliberations in the Illinois General Assembly. The actual impact is still unclear, but one thing is for sure: it won’t be pretty. We are also faced with the reality that while the city has reduced expenditures to live within our means, we continue to see a downward trend in sales tax revenues.

The bedrock of our revenue sources is the property tax, which is relatively stable and more predictable than sales taxes, or other user fees and taxes. But 80 percent of property taxes pay for pensions, and pension liabilities are growing much faster than inflation. In addition, there is serious talk in some quarters of a freeze on property taxes. That combination would seriously undermine our ability to meet essential services within an affordable budget plan. With our current unfunded pension liabilities of $248 million, there simply cannot be any property tax changes without serious pension reform. I’m not talking about taking pensions away or reducing what has already been awarded, but stemming the continuous upward trend, which is three times the rate of inflation.

Since the end of the so-called “Great Recession,” the City of Peoria has sought to live within its means; a prime example is the 14-percent reduction in city employees. But city government provides the most critical services through fire and police officers, public works employees, neighborhood and economic development specialists—and there is a point at which future reductions in public safety are simply not acceptable.

Ongoing Challenges
The Peoria City Council made tough decisions in the 2016-2017 budget cycle to make small increases in the gas, hotel and property taxes. This was done to meet the public’s expressed preference for significant road improvements, and tangible results are being implemented. These new increases generate about $5.2 million, and that’s in addition to our previous allocation of about $4 million dedicated to roads. I like to remind those who question our actions that all of these small tax increases go directly into infrastructure improvements—and the City of Peoria still accounts for just 12 cents of every dollar paid in property taxes.

There are many positive developments in the local economy, with continued expansion of the dynamic healthcare sector, our educational resources and technology service providers. However, changes in personal shopping preferences, with increased online purchases, coupled with serious concerns about Illinois’ overall economic climate (and political/financial performance) are constant reminders that Peoria and similar cities face ongoing budget challenges.

As the City Council and I move into the 2018-2019 budget discussions, we remain focused on meeting our local governance responsibilities with transparency, affordability, accessibility and collaboration, within a spirit of goodwill and trust. I welcome your suggestions and sincerely appreciate your continued support and participation in the affairs of our great city. iBi

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