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Bloomington Council Stalls Utility Shutoffs, Hears Plans To Cut Flooding Risks

Michele Steinbacher
Mary Gordon, a Bloomington resident whose home was damaged during June 25-26 flooding, addresses the Bloomington City Council on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.

Bloomington residents and business owners won’t face utility shutoffs for past-due bills — at least for the next few weeks, after the city council voted Monday night to reinstate a pandemic-related moratorium until Oct. 1.

Also at the in-person meeting, staff presented ideas for how to speed up fixes to the city’s aging sewer system, including shaving two years off a major sewer project. That action comes after two months of emotional pleas from residents for the city to act quicker to avoid future weather-related flooding.

In July, the council officially repealed its utility shutoff moratorium that had been in place since March 2020. But staff asked the council to reverse that decision, and give utility customers until the end of September to set up payment plans with the city.

Bloomington resident Matt Toczko asked the council during public comments to extend the moratorium through next year, given the continued issue of local COVID-19 cases. Bloomington-Normal hospitals reported Monday that 95% of their beds are occupied, and 92% of intensive care beds are being used.

Shortly after public comments, Ward 9 council member Tom Crumpler asked fellow council members to amend the proposed moratorium to extend past Sept. 30. He noted the date is only a few weeks away. But he dropped the idea after city attorney Jeff Jurgens said Bloomington would allow needs-based exceptions to the utility shutoffs in October and beyond.

Flood response includes shorter timeline for sewer project

Half of Monday’s two-hour meeting focused on the city’s aging combined sewer systems, blamed for much of late June’s disastrous flooding in many parts of the city. City Manager Tim Gleason said the council is expected to vote on two of the proposals Sept. 27, and the others in October.

Key proposals call for condensing the timeline for the Locust-Colton project designed to rid the city of problematic combined sewer overflow in several areas; developing hydraulic modeling; and installing two detention basins. One would be centrally located just south of the Bloomington Public Library. The second site hasn’t been determined yet.

Since the heavy June rain, every city council meeting has included discussion about property damage, and how to avoid similar scenarios in the future. For the past two months, that’s also meant dozens of flood victims sharing emotional testimonials during public comments, and imploring the council to take action before similar weather disasters hit again.

Monday was no different, with another half dozen flood victims taking the microphone. They included Mary Gordon, who said she appreciated a meeting with Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe about the disaster. She said he was polite, but that wasn't enough to help her and her neighbors. She grew louder, saying she and other residents had worked hard, paid their taxes, and needed help.

Gordon said she’s lived in her Ward 1 home more than 50 years, and during that time had dealt with repeated flooding and sewer backups. “Do you realize what it’s like? No, you don’t. You don’t have to make the repairs,” she told the council.

After Gordon, and others offered public comment, but prior to Monday’s presentation about staff ideas to assist residents who face higher flood risks, Mwilambwe thanked the public for its patience.

“It’s not easy to have a solution ‘just like that’ at your fingertips. So, staff had to take some time to review some of the information, and provide solutions that would be the most adequate,” he said.

Gleason and other Bloomington administrators outlined the priority improvements Monday, saying speeding up the Locust-Colton sewer project was a priority. The city opted to take a parallel approach to reducing flood risks, by getting that project done quicker, and also pursuing the hydraulic modeling and basins, he said. "It's a better investment for the community as a whole."

He also reminded community members that state and federal disaster relief still is available for the June floods.

Public Works Director Kevin Kothe told the council that, if approved, the nine-phase Locust-Colton project would “shave off a few years, to finish by 2026.” The multimillion-dollar renovation has completed three of its phases, and the proposed revised timeline calls for combining phases 4 and 5.

Other staff suggestions include increasing funding to the city’s Overhead Sewer Grant Program, and creating an ordinance granting joint authority to the mayor and city manager to avoid red tape and expedite flood mitigations. The council is expected to vote on both of those proposals at its next regular meeting.

Boosting the grant program from $40,000 to $250,0000 would make a bigger pool of money available to interested residents. The program provides financial aid to eligible property owners, wishing to reconnect a structure's basement plumbing fixtures to an approved pump system that can reroute those basement fixtures to an overhead sewer connection.

The proposal also calls for increasing that pool by another $250,000 each year, as needed. Also, the program would switch from awarding a flat $4,500 to homeowners to covering two-thirds of an overhead sewer project’s cost.

In addition, the city would explore the possibility of creating a payment plan for such sewer improvement projects. Jurgens noted law requires direct aid from the city must primarily serve the public good, and only indirectly assist an individual resident.

Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus said the expediting ordinance would limit the joint mayoral/city manager authority to addressing flood mitigations, and only relate to items already budgeted.

Administrative court to allow more virtual hearings

In another matter, the council voted unanimously to allow the city's administrative court to continue holding virtual hearings.

Bloomington created the court in 2015 to process minor city code violations, such as ones related to personal behavior and housing issues. Since March 2020, when the COVID lockdown moved most government proceedings virtual, the hearings have been handled that way.

Monday’s vote also authorizes the hearing officer to adopt procedures, whether for virtual or in-person hearings. In council materials, city staff recommended the council update rules about the court to clarify case-related issues, such as the ability of offenders to settle prior to court appearances.

In other business, the council:

  • Approved a special-use permit for candy giant Ferrero, to allow food production at its Beich Road facility expansion, at the corner of its main 200,000-square-foot structure. The candy maker announced the $75 million expansion last fall. The permit was needed because the land is located in a manufacturing zone.
  • Approved a $92,000 study focusing on downtown parking needs, and the Market Street Garage redesign. Hoffman Estates-based Walker Consultants will complete the study.
  • Held a public hearing regarding Community Development Block Grant spending, hearing a report from staff about the grant’s impacts in the city.
  • Adopted a resolution on affordable rent standards, required to access federal affordable housing aid.
  • Heard from Mayor Mwilambwe that on Sept. 27 he expects to name a nominee for the Ward 6 seat vacated by former council member Jenn Carrillo's departure.
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