In December’s iBi article, I concluded by indicating my enthusiasm for the opportunities, responsibilities and performance outcomes that 2015 will certainly bring. Having served 16 years in elective office, I know there will substantial challenges.
There’s always the pressure of providing quality local public services on an affordable budget. We know, for example, that we need to spend more on road improvements to have a transportation infrastructure competitive with our peer communities. It was recently estimated that we’d have to spend more than $9 million a year just to stay even with the current condition—which isn’t acceptable. For years, we’ve been grappling with the ominous cost—hundreds of millions of dollars—of meeting unfunded state mandates to separate storm and sanitary sewers in the older parts of the city. Meeting pension obligations to our dedicated employees is always an item of serious financial concern, and economic development in an urban community like ours presents its own set of challenges, such as land use, attracting investment dollars and mustering the will to make tough decisions as a public body.
Anyone with even a casual interest in local public affairs will know that 2015 offers great opportunities to finally confront these issues… and many others. In early February, I presented my annual State of the City address. I focused more on what we can accomplish this new year and the following years, rather than recapping our achievements—and there were many—in 2014.
In my address, I referenced last November’s approval of a $1.5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. This isn’t just any grant—it’s huge. We were one of just 12 cities selected from more than 90 applicants. It will permit us to finally address the problems with our century-old combined sewer overflows (CSO) in an innovative and effective manner, and eventually reduce the volume of polluted storm water that is discharged into the Illinois River. It will enable us to develop solutions that not only improve water quality, but maximize human benefits as well. In effect, the CSO issue is a community-wide concern, bringing together numerous entities beyond the municipal government: neighborhood associations, social service agencies, District 150, the Park District, churches and advocacy groups. The grant will also help us learn to leverage innovative ways to tackle other challenging issues on our plate, such as urban education.
The City of Peoria and the entire State of Illinois have a substantial stake in the success of our new governor, Bruce Rauner, and the General Assembly working together to solve problems. Illinois’ reputation isn’t good—we don’t pay the bills on time, we continue to duck tough choices on pension obligations that have overtaken the state budget, our credit rating is at rock-bottom, and our penchant for placing political posturing above sustainable job growth are just a few of the issues. I have always tried my best to work with legislators to offer practical perspectives—from the standpoint of “where the rubber meets the road”—on these challenges, and I will continue to do so. We have a breath of fresh air in Springfield. Let’s not snuff it out.
Finally, as most know by now, I don’t shrink from challenges that affect the quality of life for the people of Peoria, even if they are not under my direct responsibility as mayor. My top priority remains high-quality, competitive education. Without the skills demanded by our technologically and globally interconnected age, our youth will not land the long-lasting, enriching careers that underpin our community’s economic and social health. That is why Peoria Promise—which enables motivated high school students to attend Illinois Central College—is so important. It demonstrates to District 150 that they are not alone, and it signals to parents that responsibility for encouraging their sons and daughters to attend class and achieve academic competence begins at home. Our community has to come together and advocate for stronger outcomes in our public schools.
There’s no question that 2015 will be one of the most exciting years in Peoria’s rich history. Along with my colleagues on the City Council, I look forward to being a faithful steward of the public trust and to take Peoria to the next level of urban greatness. I pledge to once again do this in an environment of transparency, affordability, reasonableness and mutual respect. Help us stay the course. iBi