PEORIA — In his State of the City address Thursday, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said he's more optimistic about some of the many problems at the state level being addressed.
Ardis told the 550 people who gathered at the Peoria Civic Center for the luncheon program that the biggest issue facing this city and others is the pension crisis that threatens to devour budgets of communities across the state.
"If there's one thing we need help from Springfield on, it's the pension crisis," he said, referring to public safety pensions that cost Illinois municipalities $2.6 billion in 1987 but cost those communities $23.5 billion today.
In an effort to close holes in the 2019 budget, the Peoria City Council passed a public safety pension fee that will assess a fee on every parcel of land in the city specifically to help Peoria meet its pension obligation, primarily for members of the police and fire departments.
"Cities in Illinois can't reform pensions, cut labor costs or declare bankruptcy. The state sets the rules. Something needs to be done this year," said Ardis, noting that he's part of a group of mayors from across the state working to help legislators find a solution.
"I'm encouraged early on. I'm hearing a lot of positives from police and fire organizations who want to come to the table and address these things," he said.
At a news conference following his address, Ardis said Peoria's biggest problem was probably being located in Illinois. "If this was Peoria, Wis. or Peoria, Ind., we'd be rocking with all the assets we have here," he said.
Ardis listed many of those assets in his address, paying special attention to two innovative ventures in the area: AutonomousStuff in Morton, a fast-growing company focused on developing software for autonomous vehicles, and Natural Fiber Welding, a Peoria firm that seeks to popularize plant-based textiles.
Luke Haverhals, the founder of Natural Fiber Welding, who took part in the news conference following the mayor's address, said plans are in the works to set up a mill in Peoria that would serve as a prototype for the textile industry that's been using oil-based technology for years.
In his speech, Ardis called for area businesses to get their own message out there. "If you don't define yourself, your business, your endeavors, others will and sometimes not in a positive light," he said.
"Neither myself nor the city council or any one group is going to single-handedly change the negative narrative," he said.
Ardis emphasized the growth of the city's medical center. "A highly skilled workforce will keep us in the manufacturing mix but it would seem that the opportunities for growing and diversifying in the healthcare space provide us with almost unlimited possibilities," he said.
The mayor lauded companies like RLI, Komatsu and Caterpillar, in that order, for their contributions to the community while extolling Bradley University, the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Gen. Wayne A. Downing International Airport.
"It's critical we all support our local airport. As a community, we didn't support nonstop flights to Detroit so we lost them," said Ardis.
Along with saluting area Realtors and stressing public broadcasting's contribution to the community, the mayor credited Peoria Civic Center manager Rik Edgar for boosting the activity level at the facility. "More theater concerts are scheduled in fiscal year 2019 than any other year in venue history," said Ardis.
As he did last year, Ardis carried a message he received from Civic Center receptionist Vickie King. "She told me this year that a city is only as strong as our weakest neighborhood," he said.
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.