Q&A: Ali discusses anti-violence efforts and strategic planning process

A fatal shooting this week at West Beverly Court marked Peoria’s fifth homicide of 2022, but the first in more than a month.

After the city recorded a record 34 homicides last year, Mayor Rita Ali said a focused anti-violence initiative by the Peoria Police Department was having an immediate impact. Police department statistics as of March 3 showed shootings were down 75% from a year ago.

In part two of a conversation with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali discusses a range of topics, including the city’s efforts to reduce violence. This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Deacon: What do you think of the effectiveness of the city’s campaign and the police department in reducing violent crime so far this year?

Mayor Rita Ali: I think it was very effective. In fact, we meet every two weeks, the Safety Network – “S-Net” – with the police (Chief Eric Echevarria) and his team, (and) they update us on the progress of things. Homicides are down, shootings are down. It’s great to see these numbers in green; that means it’s going well. We are very proud of the new anti-violence effort put forward by the chef and his team. That works.

We’re also working on community solutions to gun violence, and we’re seeing more interest, we’re seeing more involvement. An organization, Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority is the name of it – ICJIA, this organization requested $200,000 for after-school programming (and) gun violence prevention, and they received a grant of over $400,000. So those are the types of opportunities that exist.

There are several grants under the Reimagine Public Safety Act through the Department of Human Services (DHS); they’re starting to put out requests for proposals that we respond to. It’s a great opportunity, with over $200-250 million going toward gun reduction in Illinois. So we applied, the city applied for funding for capacity building through the “R3” grant – it’s called the “Restore, Reinvest and Renew” grant; cannabis funding is used for these types of programs.

We applied to help build the capacity of city organizations to be able to apply for grants: help with grant writing, help them with their planning, program design, budgeting, staffing. These kinds of supports we want to give to community organizations so that they can be more competitive and effective in their service programs.

Are you worried that the success you have had in the first two months of the year cannot be sustained and that we may still see an increase in crime as the year progresses?

Ali: Obviously, the summer months bring more activity, more people outside, more conflict. So I expect we will see an increase as the weather gets warmer and people get out and start interacting with each other. So it will increase, but I hope it will not be at the same level as last year and the year before.

What impact could the conflict in Ukraine have on the Peoria region? We are seeing rising fuel prices, obviously. Could there be an impact on the local economy?

Ali: I think there might be. Admittedly, stocks have already been impacted by this war. It’s a global problem (and) certainly global problems usually filter down to local economies, local communities. So I expect that we will be affected in one way or another.

We have already been affected by people who have tried to travel to certain places and had their travel reservations cancelled. It’s just a sad situation, and I think with the number of people, the number of refugees starting to go elsewhere, we’ll probably see refugees coming to the West and to the United States as well. I expect that to happen.

Are there ways the city can show support for the Ukrainian people locally?

Ali: Oh, I think so. I think you have to be compassionate. There is a way to contribute financially to the humanitarian effort. You can even Google for ways to donate (but) make sure it’s a legit organization you’re donating to.

We see the COVID-19 numbers continuing to move in the right direction and mitigation efforts being lax. How will recalling restrictions benefit Peoria’s economy? Are you worried that a possible future surge will force us to reverse the trend again?

Ali: I prepare myself. You know, it feels good to see people without masks and to see those real smiles and not just looking at their eyes. So I think it will be good for our economy; our restaurants seem to be doing well. They kind of restructured to be able to provide more takeout orders.

Some things, I think, will not change, it will even continue. I spoke with a local pastor the other day who told me he was still going to have a hybrid option. So I think COVID has taught us a lot. Even with the meetings we will continue – with the exception of meetings held under the Open Meetings Act, we will probably eventually have to be in person for all of these – but we can reach more people sometimes thanks to virtual meetings, and they are very fast. So I’m just encouraged that things are starting to wind down with respect to some of the COVID-related requirements.

You mentioned the restaurant industry, and they’re still facing a shortage of employees, a shortage of labor – and it’s not just the restaurant industry. What will it take to see more people take jobs?

Ali: Law. I was talking with recruiters for OSF last week, and they were meeting with myself and a few other people who wanted our help in recruiting for certain types of jobs. Well, they have over 1,000 vacancies right now at OSF – 1,000 vacancies, so that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? We have to develop the skills – we have the people in our community – we have to develop the skills that our people need to fill the positions that are currently open. So that means vocational training at educational institutions like Illinois Central College and other providers, through the trades, of course. But we need to encourage people to take training in order to be able to fill these positions.

The City of Peoria will enter into a new agreement with Peoria County and the District of Peoria Park regarding the management of Springdale Cemetery. The 20-year deal they previously had expires this year. What is the city’s responsibility to the cemetery in the new agreement?

Ali: Well, the city owns Springdale Cemetery, the city owns it. It was funded primarily, through the last agreement – as you indicated, it was a 20-year agreement that expired – the park district started, the county started the Springdale Foundation (the Springdale Historic Preservation Foundation) started, and then the city provided all other operating costs that were not paid for by another entity.

There are some changes to the agreement. It asks for a period of 10 years rather than 20 years. It calls for some changes in terms of: the city will appoint two additional people (to the Springdale Cemetery Management Authority); it will still be the same number, a number of nine, but the city appointees will go from three to five, in terms of how many the city can appoint to that body.

The park district will own the savannah, this beautiful grassland that is part of Springdale Cemetery, and it’s basically to protect it, to make sure that it maintains a savannah, that it maintains the green space. It is a beautiful and very rare gem within the state, and I would say even within the nation. So it’s something that I’m happy that an agreement has been reached between the bodies.

The county will continue to contribute up to $100,000 (per year) through this agreement. The City will continue to do its part. The park district has a way out, if they want to be released after a certain amount of time. There is a cost factor there. But I think it’s a great deal (and) I want to thank Councilman Tim Riggenbach for helping shape this deal.

So, financially, what does it cost the city for its part to keep the cemetery functional?

Ali: I can’t give you that exact number. In the past, I think the park district paid $40,000, the county about that, and then the city picked up the remaining operating costs. There are donations that come from the Springdale Cemetery Foundation that help support. But all of those other operational costs are borne by the City of Peoria.

What does this property mean for the whole region?

Ali: It’s so important. We have treasures there, those treasures are people who are part of our history. Ancestors, very important figures in our history who are buried there. So it’s a jewel, a treasure, really, that we have to protect, that we have to maintain, that we have to maintain. So that’s what we’re doing, and that’s what this agreement is about.

You know, I visited there several months ago, and it’s a really nice cemetery. There is a place that has been built for cremations, where those who have been cremated, their remains can be buried in the cemetery and then there can be a plaque to identify who they are and when they were born and when they pass away and so on. It’s getting a bigger area actually, because cremations are on the rise. Over the past few years and with COVID, cremations have increased dramatically.

What are some of the key issues or areas the city will need to address over the next two months?

Ali: Well, we’re going to go through a strategic planning process. Right now we’re just identifying the structure and the process to do that. But we’re going to involve key stakeholders – including residents, agencies, financial institutions, community organizations, neighborhood associations – all of these key stakeholders, we want them to be involved in the strategic planning process. What do we want Peoria to look like in 10, 15, and 20 years? That’s up to us as a community, and we want to do that in a way that engages the audience.

We know that certain industries are growing. Health care is our largest employment industry: health care providers, biotechnology industries, we expect them to be growing. The fields of information technology, innovative and knowledge-based businesses are the ones I plan to develop in the next few years.

Louisa R. Loomis