While most iBi readers were enjoying their usual weekend routines on Saturday, June 13th, the Peoria City Council was hard at work at a retreat. Actually, “retreat” is a somewhat misleading term, as its purpose was to discuss ways that the Council could “advance” Peoria as the preferred urban community in the Midwest.
It has been the practice for a number of years for the City Council to have an off-site, retreat-style meeting immediately following municipal elections. During my years as a councilman and now as mayor, these retreats have taken many forms. Some have focused on housekeeping issues, such as Council decorum and procedures, meeting frequency, and so on. Others have looked at the more traditional subjects of vision and mission statements, specific goal-setting and the like.
This year, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to create an environment where we would really think through the big-picture issues that shape so much of our community’s destiny. Some of these issues, like education, while not a direct responsibility of city government, have an immense impact on our ability to attract new residents and compete with similarly sized communities throughout our part of the country. And generally, citizens expect elected officials, regardless of the specific office they hold, to be concerned and knowledgeable about any subject affecting “the city.”
You could characterize our meeting as having the general theme: Do we understand the outside influences that impact our decision making? Are our education choices helping or hurting our ability to grow? Are we taking advantage of new opportunities put in place by the stimulus program? Are we focusing correctly on economic development strategies in this highly competitive arena? You can’t get away from recognizing that there are basic services people want from their city. The big ones, of course, are police protection, fire suppression, infrastructure maintenance and improvement. But to accomplish these fundamental services, there’s a tremendous amount of enabling staff requirements.
Police and fire departments could not function without reliable, 24/7 emergency communications and information systems support. There are dozens of other examples throughout City government of support functions serving as the enablers of “on-the-street” services. But our purpose wasn’t to focus on the basics—we do that at every Council meeting and in between. Rather, what are the factors impacting our ability as a community to grow, prosper, compete and achieve a quality of life without equal?
In my mind, it comes down to top-quality and competitive public education. It also rests on sophisticated financing strategies in a quickly changing climate where the federal government plays an even more important role. It includes the reality of a social services network that is, in fact, the community’s safety net for people in need. And finally, our greatness as a community depends on continued economic development success. If you don’t grow, you stagnate.
And so it was that our four main discussion topics were education, financing, services for people and economic development.
We were privileged to have outside experts addressing each of these areas. While these folks generously gave of their time and expertise, they did not seek or ask for public recognition. One of the country’s premier experts on urban school districts and charter schools is Paul Vallas. We had an opportunity to hear his thoughts as he shared his experiences in Chicago, Philadelphia and now New Orleans. Mr. Vallas is more than willing to assist our decision-makers in these very difficult times for our local school districts. The City has to take an active role in getting our public schools back on track.
The world in which we live requires very sophisticated financing methods, and we learned a lot about them at our retreat. Mesirow Financial, a well-known, highly respected firm serving school districts and municipal governments, spoke to us about the federal stimulus bill, Build America Bonds, tax-exempt bonds and tax credit bonds. Our economic development speaker analyzed some of the things we’re doing in Peoria and offered a good perspective on how we compare with other areas around the state and country.
Don Johnson from the United Way rounded out the presentations with an overview of the services being provided in our community by a host of not-for-profits. And these community needs are expanding far beyond what the City Council can provide for, even with help from the federal programs.
While I could write a separate article on each of these topics, I can condense the equation to this: economic development + creative financing techniques = excellence in delivery of quality education and social services. The interrelationship of these subjects is obvious, and the initiatives sparked by our retreat will serve as a template for Council decisions, not only on our direct service responsibilities as a municipal corporation, but with an eye on how our actions impact other critical service providers, such as our public school district or human service agencies.
I am encouraged and refreshed by the enthusiasm and progressive spirit of my fellow Council members. I believe you will find the next four years to be characterized by a conscientious and dedicated Council. Yes, we conducted a “retreat” and, in doing so, we truly “advanced” Peoria as a community of choice. iBi