Van Auken wonders if 'timid colleagues' can get job done

DeWayne Bartels

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis wanted some preliminary steps taken at last night’s city council meeting to address the city’s $10 million budget deficit.

“I’m going to push for votes ... and not votes for deferral,” Ardis told the council as they began looking at ways to address the deficit. “We need to provide direction to the administration.”

In the end, however, some items were deferred. Yet, some revenue generating ideas were eliminated which did give the administration some direction.

But, a question emerged from last night’s meeting: Does the city council have the backbone to rightsize government that Ardis attributed to it? Second District councilwoman Barbara Van Auken, following the meeting, said she wonders just that about what she termed her “timid colleagues.”

The challenge

Ardis, speaking to the editorial board of the Peoria Times-Observer on July 24 said there is a “perfect storm” of circumstances lined up to allow for radical change in city government.

He said there are no spring elections looming, the economy is very bad, and the city manager is not in a position to worry about losing his job if things get worse (because the current city manager Henry Holling is an interim choice).

“The council has to be strong, and I believe it will be,” Ardis said. “We are at a point where we have to right size or add a significant amount of revenue. It’s hard to make changes. People want more and more services, and not pay anymore in taxes. It’s hard as an elected official to say, ‘no.’”

But, Ardis said, “no” is exactly what the council is going to have to say.

Ardis said he is enthusiastic about this situation because it provides an opportunity to downsize government that has been talked about for years without much action.

Lack of evidence

Following last week’s meeting Van Auken said there is reason to doubt the council has the will needed to get the job done of rightsizing government.

At the conclusion of the more than four-hour meeting the council decided to move forward with the possibility of a 5 percent water utility tax, hikes in animal adoptions and fines and higher parking fees at downtown parking decks.

The council voted down the idea of pursuing a 2 percent packaged liquor tax.

At the same time, the council opted not to pursue a 2 percent package liquor tax, a hospital bed tax and a litter tax.

The council deferred a decision on the proposed garbage plan, which would involve a property tax hike and a business licensing fee.

Van Auken put her self at the forefront of the discussion making the tough motions several times.

One example was her motion to remove Community Block Development Grant funds amounting to between $285,000-$300,000 from social service agencies to the police department. Van Auken made the motion while the gallery was filled with representatives from social service agencies. 

“It’s a tough time,” Van Auken said. “The prudent thing to do is put this money into law enforcement.”

Her proposal was greeted with arguments against by many other council members. At-large councilman Eric Turner asked the idea be trimmed to removing just half of the funding. At-large councilman Gary Sandberg said the idea was a “dangerous” one.

When the vote was taken to pull the funds from social service agencies it failed. Van Auken was the sole council member voting in favor.

Ardis took note of Van Auken’s willingness to tackle the issue.

“That was not an easy motion to make,” Ardis said, looking in Van Auken’s direction. “Councilwoman Van Auken was not trying to cut anyone’s throat.”

Van Auken took the unpopular route with the proposal to add a 2 percent tax on packaged liquor.

“Alcohol is not a necessity of life,” Van Auken said. “When I buy an $8 bottle of wine I don’t say, ‘My, this is 16 cents more.’ That is highly unlikely ... I urge my colleagues to use logic and common sense. This is one of the most painless routes to follow.”

She was defeated.

Van Auken made a motion to raise animal control fees and fines. At the same time she moved to keep animal control under the purview of the city and not make moves to return it to the county, pitting her against Ardis.

“It is ostensibly a county function. This is a core service ... The county doesn’t show enough responsibility,” Van Auken said.

The idea of raising fees and fines remains on the table, but so does the idea of giving the agency back to the county.

Van Auken left the meeting to have a cigarette before the council went into executive session. She was direct when asked why she had stepped up to tackle the most controversial and unpopular ideas brought up.

“Often the mayor calls on me because of my timid colleagues,” she said. “You watch Jim (Ardis). He’ll look to me.”