PEORIA — The city's $8 million budget shortfall is a fire truck away from being settled.
The Peoria City Council spent much of Tuesday's meeting debating the final recommendation city officials have offered to close the budget deficit — a 5 percent cut to fire department operations.
City Manager Patrick Urich announced a compromise measure that had been worked out with fire department officials that would have Fire Chief Charles Lauss manage his department's $23.5 million budget.
"We tasked the chief with managing his department's (annual) $23.5 million budget. If that means using two inspectors instead of four, that's how it goes," said Urich.
But that solution didn't sit well with 2nd District Councilman Chuck Grayeb, who accused the city of devising "a cruel shell game on the people of Peoria."
"Don't be misled. We need to keep equipment on the street," he said, opposing any plan that would reduce the fire department's ability to respond to an emergency. Grayeb vehemently opposed plans to decommission one of the department's fire engines at a previous meeting.
At Large Councilwoman Beth Jensen called for hiking a number of fees related to fire safety and hazardous materials that Urich estimated would raise $200,000 for the fire department. The measure passed by a 7-3 margin with Mayor Jim Ardis, 5th District Councilman Denis Cyr and At Large Councilman Eric Turner voting no.
The council put off a vote on the fire department budget, with Grayeb asking Lauss if he could come up with $900,000 in cuts of other fire department expenses that wouldn't reduce the number of firefighters. At meeting's end, Lauss wasn't able to detail $900,000 in cuts but said he would do what he could, indicating that he was comfortable with the plan that the city had worked out earlier.
Ryan Brady, president of the Firefighters Local 50 union, repeated what he said at a Monday news conference, declaring that a cut would ultimately impact the level of service on a daily basis.
"We're cut to the bone," he said.
Ardis responded that the city was trying to close a $1 million shortfall. "We know that service will be impacted. Other engines and trucks will cover for equipment not in use. There's no lack of passion on the council for our firefighters, but our job is to balance the budget," he said.
Urich noted that while police and fire departments faced a 5 percent cut each, departments such as the city manager's office and public works department faced reductions of 20 percent or more.
Ardis supported Urich's efforts to respond to council requests while proposing a balanced budget. The mayor noted that the number of fire calls had increased over the years, with 82 percent of the calls made in 2016 going for medical reasons.
"Only 3 percent of fire department calls were for fires last year," said Ardis.
The council plans to hold a budget meeting next Tuesday. As to whether the issues will be settled by then, Urich said, "That will be up to the council."
Steve Tarter covers the city and county for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.