“Workforce” is one of those words that evoke different meanings or perceptions among people of varying backgrounds. To human resource professionals, for example, it translates to the education and training necessary to equip individuals to find gainful employment. For many others, the word is simply a statistic indicative of the economy’s performance. As Peoria’s mayor, I feel that—first and foremost—“workforce” describes the faces, lives, energies, talents and dedication of the 681 men and women who do the work of our city government.
In order to best align our human and financial resources with the ongoing and long-term needs of Peoria, the City Council periodically embarks on a strategic planning process with the mayor and city manager. Our most recent exercise focuses on four broad goals:
- A financially sound city government and efficient city organization;
- Aggressive economic development to “Grow Peoria”—in business, jobs and population;
- Building and sustaining attractive, safe and livable neighborhoods with character; and
- Creating a vibrant downtown—in the Riverfront, Central Business and Warehouse districts.
I could cite progress in each of these areas, as I have done in previous iBi columns—as a city government that lives within its means; participation in the soon-to-be-completed Louisville Slugger Sports Complex; numerous initiatives in the Glen Oak School neighborhood; and an emerging, dynamic Warehouse District, leveraged with the outstanding redevelopment of Washington Street. However, my primary focus this month is the skill and dedication of the city’s employees, who are accomplishing these critical activities.
If you consider the current budget of approximately $183 million and residential population of about 115,000, each of our 681 employees is responsible for providing diverse municipal services to nearly 170 residents. To me, that translates into quite a value. Sure, the largest share of these services comes from our uniformed personnel in the fire and police departments, and from employees in public works. The point is that very few individuals provide critical municipal services over a large and dynamic urban population.
Since its most recent high of 778 employees in 2005, the city’s workforce has contracted significantly. That is not reflective of a policy desire to “reduce” for its own sake, but rather a commitment to live within our financial means. An inescapable fact is that almost 60 percent ($108 million) of our budget is for total workforce expenses, including salaries and benefits. And when looking at the details, one cannot help but notice that police and fire pension expenses have doubled—from $7.6 million in 2007 to $15.2 million in 2015—in less than nine years. Of course, this leads to much discussion of the options we have to honor our commitments to our workforce, yet live within reasonable limits in terms of what our revenue base—real estate tax revenues—can sustain within sluggish state and national economies.
No one is prouder than I am of the professionalism and dedication of our fire and police personnel. I depend on them day and night, just like everyone else. However, my overriding obligation is to the electorate and their ability to “pay” for city government. That is why I am working with state legislators, other mayors throughout Illinois, our professional affiliations in Springfield and others to find affordable and honorable solutions to this serious financial challenge. I’ve been beaten up a bit for taking a lead role in Springfield, but that comes with the territory—and we simply cannot duck this reality. As the city manager and administration begin preparation of the next two-year city budget cycle, you can expect to hear a lot more—not only of the challenges of meeting pension funding, but of equally demanding capital needs, including those related to the combined sewer outflow problem, aging underground conveyances throughout the city, and pressing demands for street overhaul and improvement.
All this and more will be on the plates of the city’s 681 employees. Despite unavoidable differences in opinion as to what constitutes compensation fairness, make no mistake but that I hold our workforce in the highest personal and professional regard. On that note, I will close with a sincere note of thanks to Fire Chief Kent Tomblin, who retires in January after 37 years of outstanding service to the people of Peoria. Our city has changed dramatically since he first put on his uniform in 1979, but his dedication to the safety of our citizens and his 24/7 commitment to advancing the quality of life and integrity of purpose for his fellow firefighters did not change. It has been my honor to serve as mayor during his term as chief. When I think of “workforce” and value, I think of people like Kent Tomblin and the employees of our city. iBi