UPDATED Analysis: Is Ardis right?

DeWayne Bartels
Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, left, says the city council has the political backbone to trim $14.5 
million from the city budget — a politically bloody 
endeavor. Is Ardis right?

Update: Fifth District Councilman Dan Irving asked for the opportunity to clarify a remark he made in connection to this story.

During a hasty inteview prior to the Oct. 13 Peoria City Council meeting Irving, said, in part,  referring to personnel cuts: “I don’t have a heavy heart about making them. We are making decisions that effect lives and careers. I recognize that. But, we owe it to these people to make those decisions and let them get on with their lives.”

Irving said he meant to say, “I do have a heavy heart about making them.”

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, in July, made some judgments about the city council and political fortitude.

He said this council has the backbone to make the tough decisions when it comes to trimming the city budget.

Ardis, on July 24, said, “The council has to be strong, and I believe it will be. We have been whittling away at the deficit every year ... 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, “no” is exactly what Ardis said the council is going to have to say.

Is Ardis correct?

That is a question that is yet to be fully answered.

But, last week’s meeting provided some clues.

Re-set

Fifth District councilman Dan Irving walked into the council chambers Oct. 13 looking a bit harried.

It was 6:05 p.m.

Within hours, the biggest decisions, so far, of his five-month council career would be made as the council looked for ways to trim a $14.5 million deficit.

Irving, sitting in a small room off the council chambers eyed boxes of Little Ceasars Pizza, and said he was prepared to do what was needed.   

“I think what lies ahead in this budget proposal is about as bloody as it can get,” Irving said.

While concerned the possibility of losing up to 20 police officers due to budget cuts existed, Irving said he believed North Peoria would not be significantly impacted by such a loss.

He did, however, concede North Peorians complain that while they pay the majority of taxes they get the slowest police response in the city. 

“Crime is going to happen if we have 20 more or 20 less cops,” he said. “We need to find additional efficiencies within that department so North Peorians do not suffer.”

Irving did harbor some concerns about the possibility of closing a fire house.

“If a fire house were to close, no matter where, it will effect all areas of the city,” he said. “That will be a drain on response time everywhere.”

Irving said he was also aware Peoria’s new city manager, Scott Moore, in a lengthy memo about proposed budget cuts to the council, wrote, “The critical loss of services and the crippling effect of many of these changes is likely unacceptable.”

Irving, providing a clue Ardis may be correct about the council, said he disagreed.

“I wouldn’t say it’s unacceptable. My constituents are losing jobs, facing pay cuts and furloughs,” Irving said. “They are saying, ‘Cut back government and don’t raise my taxes’. We are going to have to reset the expectations of what government can do.”

Irving said he was prepared to vote in favor of most of the cuts in the memo.

“In my opinion, we have six weeks to make a lot of decisions. The time to start is now,” Irving said. “I don’t have a heavy heart about making them. We are making decisions that effect lives and careers. I recognize that. But, we owe it to these people to make those decisions and let them get on with their lives.”

Decision time      

At 6:13 p.m., Ardis was prepared to gavel the council to order.

He had time for one quick question. Ardis was asked if he still felt the council had the backbone he attributed to its members.

A smile crossed his face.

“I still believe they have what it takes to make the tough decisions,” Ardis said, grabbing his gavel.

The more pedestrian items on the agenda went by and the main event about budget cuts arrived.

Ardis made some comments, sounding like a coach speaking to his team.

“It’s come to the point in time where we have to give the administration some direction,” he said.

He reminded the council that $4.3 million in budget cuts were made to the ‘09 city budget in April and the council has identified about $10 million in cuts from the looming 2010 budget.

“We now need to cut another $4.5 million. To say these cuts are drastic is not an understatement,” Ardis said. “It’s our job to make the best use of the dollars we have.”

The Peoria Animal Welfare Shelter cuts came up.

The council faced three options. There was an option in favor of turning over the department to the county and options of cutting their budget by $250,000 or $500,000.

Petitions with 300 signatures in favor of a hands-off approach to the shelter were presented.

That idea was almost immediately dismissed despite an impassioned plea by 2nd District councilwoman Barbara Van Auken that the department is vital to public safety.  

The council voted to trim the department’s budget by $250,000.

Street workers and a mechanic were trimmed from the public works department.

A public safety coordinator was trimmed from the city’s information technology department.

The council also let stand the loss of 20 police officers. The police union has not come forward with wage concessions as the fire department has.

When it came time to address more than $1 million in cuts to the fire department the council backed off, making it clear the firefighters union’s voluntary $570,000 wage freeze concession carried weight with the council.

“This will be the last department I want to come to ask for further sacrifices,” Van Auken said.

“This is not the place to plug the gap. This is the department that gave more than any other department percentage-wise.”

Tony Ardis, president of firefighters Local 50, stood in the back of the room watching the council meeting.

Ardis is an old hand at watching and assessing the direction the political wind is blowing in the council chambers.

He was pleased to hear the comments earlier in the night about the $570,000 the firefighters’ local made earlier in the year and how the council was standing behind the fire department.

“Based on what the council said in June about those who stepped forward voluntarily we expected to be OK,” he said.

But, Tony also said that goodwill can only go so far, and hinted at the fact that his brother, the mayor, was probably right in his assessment this council will make the tough decisions.

“The support they expressed to us was made back when the deficit was $10 million,” he said.

“Now that it is approaching $15 million, we don’t anticipate that goodwill will be enough without the possibility of further concessions.”