By Andy Kravetz Journal Star @andykravetz
Posted Sep 1, 2020 at 7:56 PM Updated Sep 2, 2020 at 6:16 PM
PEORIA — In the wake of a contentious 6-5 City Council vote Tuesday night to eliminate two fire engines, Peoria Fire Chief Tony Ardis said on Wednesday he’s reviewing all facets of the department’s operations. That might mean changes to how firefighters respond to emergency medical calls, Ardis said. Right now, the city works with Advanced Medical Transport in a two-tiered response where firefighters tend to get to the scene first and then assess if AMT’s paramedics are needed.
The chief is considering not sending firefighters to Code 2 calls — those that aren’t considered life-threatening incidents. The department might not respond to requests from nursing home or assisted living places for “lift assistance” when a person has fallen. Meetings, the chief said, will be held later this week with the area’s EMS gurus, but until then, things are up in the air. “I realize this is vague, but the reality is when an organization loses almost 25% of their resources in 21 months, something has to give. We just need to figure out what that is,” he said.
The city’s dive team, its hazardous materials team and the technical rescue team could also be eliminated, the chief said in an email detailing other options being considered.
“Our concern in this area is if we will be able to maintain the training required and also these incidents are lengthy and if we aren’t allowed to hire back to replace the members who are on those calls a large part of the city will be unprotected for a lengthy period of time,” he said.
How we got here
The potential changes come in the wake of a decision that some council members were adamantly opposed to and that they warned could wind up hurting the city more than helping it.
The 6-5 vote came after several months of debate over the final pieces of the puzzle to bring the city back to a balanced budget after revenues plummeted amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The city will also borrow $10 million, which will help pay its bills. The vote means Engine 4 from South Peoria and Engine 20 from Far North Peoria will be decommissioned. Twenty-two firefighter positions will be eliminated. There are 14 spots currently vacant, with some of those coming from a voluntary separation agreement, so the end result is eight layoffs within the department. That would happen, if things progress as they are supposed to, by Oct. 1, though 2nd District Councilman Chuck Grayeb did indicate that he hoped the majority would reconsider Tuesday night’s vote at next week’s meeting.
The city has been grappling with a multimillion-dollar budgetary black hole caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sales tax, motor fuel tax, hotel and restaurant taxes all plummeted, and while the gradual reopening in late May and late June did produce better revenue than expected, the continued shortfall still required action. Prior to Tuesday, the city had cut more than $25 million in capital projects, laid off employees in non public-safety areas, had non-union employees take several days of furlough and restructured some of the city’s existing debt.
The decision Tuesday night happened when 5th District Councilman Denis Cyr, who represents the area covered by Engine 20, flipped his vote from last week when the same proposal failed by a 6-5 vote. Voting no last week and on Tuesday were Beth Jensen, Grayeb, Rita Ali, Jim Montelongo and Denise Moore.
Ryan Brady, the head of Local 50, which represents the department’s rank and file, held nothing back after the meeting. “We can’t function,” he said of the cuts, which total 48 people in the past four years. “This is a catastrophic. This is going to drastically impact how we do business on a 24/7 basis.”
Cyr, the swing vote, gave an emotional speech before the vote. He said he had received many text messages and phone calls in the past week, the most in his four years on the council. And the vast number of people didn’t want the alternative of having their taxes raised, even if it meant saving the fire station that was responsible for much of North Peoria. Cyr ran on cutting taxes, and that is what led him to his decision, he said. “Increased taxes along with a perceived crime problem … would only supercharge the exodus (out of Peoria), causing bigger budget problems for years to come,” he said. But the former professional hockey player was adamant on one thing — the response times in the 5th District must be improved to come in line with other parts of the city. He urged his colleagues around the horseshoe and Tony Ardis to join with him to make that happen.
The decision to cut the engines — which are essentially mobile pumping stations that provide water as well as equipment and personnel to fight fires — was controversial.
Both Moore, who represents South Peoria, and Cyr campaigned hard for the engines to stay in their area. Moore noted that South Peoria has a large number of calls and Cyr said his constituents deserved better response times and needed Engine 20 to remain on station.
But the fire chief explained why he recommended those cuts. It was for the safety of the people in the department. New construction, he said, like that in the far northern swath of the city, burns faster and the homes collapse quicker. In essence, the move compresses the city’s fire staff by cutting off the two extremes.
And while Brady said he understood the chief’s moves, it made life much harder for residents and his colleagues. “Response times are going to increase. Firefighters’ safety is going to be at a greater risk because of this,” he said. Brady noted the Peoria Fire Department had dozens fewer firefighters than comparable department like Springfield. It’s irresponsible, he said, to continue to balance the city’s budget on the back of the fire department. “I really don’t like our odds. We are playing a bad game of Russian roulette. Instead of taking bullets out of the gun, we are putting more bullets in the gun,” Brady said.