EAST PEORIA — With a nearly unanimous show of hands, the message Tuesday evening from residents of Highland Hills Estates to the East Peoria City Council commissioners could not have been more clear:
Annex our properties into the city of East Peoria, and you will be doing so against our collective will.
"It still feels like it's being jammed down our throats," Highland Hills resident Jim Almasy said after the 90-minute meeting attended by all five members of the East Peoria City Council. "I doubt our thoughts are going to sway five people we didn't vote for. Maybe if they annex us in all they will have created here are future disgruntled voters."
The council is expected to vote on Aug. 1 on annexation of the 1960s-era subdivision located behind Robein Elementary School. Highand Hills is eligible to be annexed into the city of East Peoria with a simple majority vote of the council because of state law that allows for an annexation vote on any property smaller than 60 acres. The 149 homes in Highland Hills sit on a total of a little more than 50 acres. Annexation will increase the property tax bills of residents in the subdivision by about 15 percent, according to the city.
On Tuesday, no one seemed to be buying the city's argument that a higher property tax bill was a fair trade-off for improved city services or the proposed benefit of the city providing garbage pickup and recycling without the additional fee residents are now paying to private contractors to haul their trash.
"We're fine with the services we have now," Almasy said.
The four commissioners and Mayor Dave Mingus took turns answering questions from the more than 100 residents who filled the side of the bleachers in the Robein school gymnasium. They initially had to fend off lingering anger over a meeting last week at the school that was attended by city staff, but no elected officials. That meeting hadn't been posted, so attendance by the entire council would have constituted an illegal meeting under provisions of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. A second meeting was properly posted and allowed the contribution of the City Council on Tuesday night.
"There are a lot of concerns, a number of concerns about taxes and money, but we have really been concerned about the way (the city) has gone about (this process)," said longtime Highland Hills resident Terry Pagan, who moderated the meeting and opened with a mild scolding of the way the city informed residents about the annexation proposal. "We feel like we are being made to pay for some of the poor decisions the council has made in other parts of East Peoria and we didn't vote for any of you guys."
Commissioner Gary Densberger explained why the annexation process seemed to be happening at a rapid speed. The council learned just three months ago that Illinois American Water Co. had a signed contract to buy the current provider of sewage service, Sundale Utility, Inc.
"It was a shock to us that was the genesis of the annexation process," Densberger said.
Officials felt it was in the city's best interest, and in the best interest of Highland Hills residents, to be served by East Peoria sewer, not Illinois American. Highland Hills is entirely surrounded by the city of East Peoria. The city has been granted permission to intervene in the case by the Illinois Commerce Commission. The outcome of the sale won't be known for months.
"We didn't go out looking for someone to annex," said Commissioner Dan Decker.
None of the members of the City Council announced how they intended to vote on annexation next month. Commissioner John Kahl said he opposed "big government," and was not inclined to annex a group of properties that don't want to be annexed. Commissioner Tim Jeffers said earlier in the day that he intended to vote for the annexation. None of the other members committed to a vote Tuesday evening.
While the meeting rarely rose a conversational level, it ended on a true note of civility.
"I'd like to thank you all for coming," said Almasy, who sat front and center on the first row of bleachers.
The comment drew applause.
"I just hope you consider what the residents really want here and would like to stay in the county," he said.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.