Peoria Journal Star

City hopes to secure grant to pay officers

Department hit hard last year without money

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

PEORIA — A federal stimulus grant could pay for 10 police officers next year and potentially keep the department from having to lay off additional men, Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard said Monday.

But the grant - the COPS Hiring Program - is competitive, with thousands of state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies nationwide looking for a piece of about $300 million. Grant money should be awarded by late next month.

"If that comes through, it may end up picking up the portion of the Police Department's deficit," Settingsgaard said during a budget open house at Neighborhood House in South Peoria. "Maybe we don't lose any sworn staff."

The department was hit hard last year, losing 33 police officer positions in the 2010 budget that had a shortfall of as much as $14 million.

This year's city spending plan appears to be just as difficult. Projections of a $10 million budget deficit have risen to a range of $10 million to $14 million, according to city officials and council members.

"I think there is always pressure that public safety is the most important area of service," at-large City Councilman Ryan Spain said.

That might be the case especially this year following a violent summer that has seen 17 homicides in the city and more than 80 people shot. Lately, though, the violence has quieted since the formation of a task force and increased police presence in a designated "hot spot" area around South Western Avenue and Garden Street.

The violence and increases in crime could help bolster Peoria's chances with receiving federal grant money. The reduction of police officers, including layoffs within the department, could also help the department's chances.

Settingsgaard said the department applied for the same grant last year but did not receive any assistance. He said, at the time the city applied, the crime rate was down and the 2010 deficit figures were unknown.

This year?

"It's completely flipped," Settingsgaard said. "We lost 33 sworn officers, the crime rate went up and, obviously, the shooting issue."

The chief is concerned about potentially losing 12 more officers through a 5 percent reduction within the department. All department heads, including the police chief, were asked to present 2011 budgets to the city manager's office showing what could happen if they were cut by 5 percent.

No budget proposals have been acted on and city officials say it is still early in the process.

"I think that since that 5 percent (proposal), things have gotten worse," Settingsgaard added, eluding to a potential increase in the deficit.

The police department's budget also is a focus of council members whose districts include areas where most of the crime occurred.

"You are dealing with a budget that includes services that we really, at this time, we need to be increasing," 1st District City Councilman Clyde Gulley said.

Open houses have been held in recent weeks, allowing residents to voice their concerns about the 2011 budget while learning about how the city's budget process works. The final open house will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the PeoriaNEXT Innovation Center.