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Normal Leaders Review COVID Relief Funds, Police Reforms

Image of the Normal Town Council, as seen during its virtual meeting Monday, May 17, 2021.
WGLT
Normal Police Chief, bottom right, discusses police reforms during the Normal Town Council's virtual meeting, Monday, May 17, 2021.

With Normal set to receive about $5.4 million in federal COVID-relief this month, and the same amount a year from now, city leaders are sharing guidelines and ideas with the Normal Town Council on which “buckets” to fill.

Normal Finance Chief Andrew Huhn told the council Monday night the relief measure sends $1.9 trillion across the country to be disbursed by states, counties and cities. Normal’s nearly $11 million allotment can be spent through December 2026. So he noted, “There’s time for thoughtful planning."

The council met virtually to focus on those American Rescue Plan funds, as well as to hear Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner’s presentation on the state’s new Criminal Justice Reform package. The council then reconvened for its regular meeting.

Huhn said with the town council heading into its annual budget planning in a few months, it might dovetail nicely with incorporating how to spend the federal aid. “We can use our budget structure,” he said.

City Manager Pam Reece said administrators didn’t expect council members to decide Monday how to spend the money. Instead, they wanted to talk about the eligible buckets, and allow the council time to have thoughtful, intentional plans to find ways to make the strongest impact.

Community collaborations will play a significant role in the town’s federal COVID-relief disbursement, said Huhn.

“We’re not necessarily experts in providing business loans — we can do those things; or health care — we can do those things. But there are ways to fund those things with our money and put the money in the pockets of those who do that and can deliver those services,” he said.

Huhn outlined several “buckets,” or programs, the federal relief can go toward:

  • Public health — relating to mitigating COVID, including mental health.
  • Negative economic impacts — focusing on the underserved and unemployment, affordable housing, small business loans, education, and the like. One possibility floated was forgiving utility debt in some cases.
  • Replacement of lost public revenue — a focus on the town’s budget losses, including cuts made specifically due to the pandemic, and short staffing.
  • Essential workers — especially in areas that suffered pandemic burnout such as educators, child care workers, those in social services, nursing homes, and food service.
  • Water and sewer infrastructure — improving water quality, in particular.
  • Investing in broadband — focusing on where there’s an acute need to improve Internet access.
  • Connect Transit — the public transportation’s budget was hit hard during the pandemic, and it serves a community need moving forward.

Mayor Chris Koos asked if the federal COVID-relief had to be spent equally across categories. Huhn said the town has complete decision making in how much goes where.

As for a timeline, Reece suggested plans be put in place sooner, rather than later. With that in mind, council member Karyn Smith urged fellow leaders to seek feedback from the community, and urged the council to not forget the arts, when thinking of groups hurt by the pandemic.

Council member Kathleen Lorenz suggested joint initiatives with Bloomington and McLean County. And, for the COVID-relief plans to be a blend of long-term and short-term solutions. She also urged leaders to consider programs that work “across buckets.”

Huhn did outline a few limitations on the spending. The town can’t offer a tax reduction or delay connected with the American Rescue funds. It also can’t use this money for its pension funds, debt service, or legal issues.

Police reforms

Bleichner gave an overview of statewide police reforms, signed into law in February, with many elements set to take effect this summer. He also outlined some concerns NPD has about the changes.

The police chief said reforms include the 764-page Safety, Awareness, Fairness and Equity Today (SAFE-T Act), as well as Part 2 of 2015's Police and Community Relations Improvement Act.

He said some people have a misconception that law enforcement agencies oppose the criminal justice law Gov. JB Pritzker signed in February.

“That's not the case,” said Bleichner. Rather, he said the issue was that the changes seemed an 11th-hour rushed legislation, and law enforcement professionals weren’t able to contribute to the discussion.

One example he gave was body cameras, and police now not being able to review their notes before writing a report, but then potentially being held criminally negligent for errors. Police often take several calls during a shift before writing reports, he said.

He compared it to the Normal city clerk having to attend several meetings and not reviewing her notes, or a reporter covering several stories and not being able to look at their notes before deadline.

Key among the SAFE-T Acts creations are a standard use-of-force policy, a task force on constitutional rights and remedies, law enforcement certification process, changes to representation for jail populations, and new reporting requirements for in-custody deaths.

The task force also will address the issue of qualified immunity for police officers.

Several Illinois Criminal Code amendments are set to take effect July 1. But Bleichner said he expects the state to delay some changes for logistics reasons. Normal police already have had many of the new requirements in place for some time, he said.

It amends police pursuit policies, as well as use-of-force, and deadly force rules, as well as no-knock warrants, and modifies the state's police Body Camera Act. It also adds mandated training programs, and some mental health screenings for officers.

What different police agencies need to do to comply with the new rules varies based on their current policies and department sizes, he said.

“We are probably better situated to handle some of these changes in the SAFE-T act than other agencies are," he said, because Normal's department always is looking at best practices, he said.

NPD already has addressed some of the the Act's changes, he said. For example, the department has banned choke holds for many years. And, he said the department's duty-to-intervene for excessive force, and it's duty to render aid, policies exceed the state’s new requirements.

Criminal code changes include pre-trial release, and abolishing cash bail, he said.

He said the SAFE-T Act expands three state entities — the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, and the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

Bleichner said the criminal justice reforms also amends the Illinois’ Open Meetings Act and how some Freedom of Information requests are handled, as well as police training and others.

Normal Police leadership is reviewing NPD policy and training practices to ensure changes are in place by the legal deadlines. They’ll educate staff on the changes.

Bleichner said among law enforcement concerns with the new legislation are:

  • Worries about the ability to retain and recruit police officers. In the past few months alone, three Normal officers have resigned, he said.
  • Increasing costs for more mandated training, as well as from changes to qualified immunity. The latter issue has been a major one across the nation, especially with attention to police killings this year. But Bleichner lamented a public misunderstanding of the role of immunity, noting police aren’t the only members of municipalities with such immunity. Mayors, judges, and council members have it too, he said.
  • Not knowing what lies ahead, especially related to decertification, pattern and practice investigations, liability issues, and a culture that expects perfection from its police, with no mistakes permitted.

Council OKs nearly $2 million insurance premium

During its regular meeting, the council voted 6-1 to authorize this year’s $1.9 million municipal insurance premium, and to renew its annual membership with the 22-member Municipal Insurance Cooperative Agency.

The vote followed a lengthy discussion of whether the premium was cost-effective, and whether Normal should be part of such a cooperative. The plan covers a variety of risk management programs, with the largest being workers’ compensation, said Reece.

Council member Stan Nord was the only “no” vote, saying he felt at the high cost, the item should have been bid out as part of the town’s procurement policy. “This is a lot of money, this is not a minor amount,” he said.

Reece said the organization, not individual municipalities, put out the bids. City Attorney Brian Day added, “This does not in any way violate the town’s procurement policy.” He said Monday’s vote was similar to the council routinely approving other membership dues, such as for the Illinois Municipal League.

Huhn said most municipalities the size of Normal take part in such a co-op, and that premiums change year-to-year based on several factors. Among the 22 entities, they all come from a similar risk pool, he said.

Last year, Normal’s increase was under 1%, and some years the town even sees rebates, Reece noted. Staff usually budgets for a possible 10% increase. But because this year’s is about 13% higher, it requires a $54,000 budget adjustment. This year, municipalities in general, have seen insurance premiums increase, said Huhn.

Council member Kathleen Lorenz criticized Nord for not communicating his concerns with staff, or council members prior to the meeting. At the end of a nearly 45-minute council debate on the issue, she said, “Let’s not conflate this with procurement policies because it’s not relevant.”

County Board member shares concerns

The McLean County Board voted recently to OK cost-sharing for the community’s drop-box recycling program with Normal and Bloomington.

During public comments, McLean County Board vice chairman Jim Soeldner addressed the council about the program. He said he voted in favor of the agreement, but only because he felt like Normal was threatening to drop the entire program for Normal and Bloomington if the county board didn’t approve it.

Reece explained that Town Council’s approval of the preliminary proposal earlier this spring brought a caveat that if either Bloomington or the county didn’t join, Normal would need to revisit whether it could continue the drop-box recycling program.

The Normal council is expected to vote on the final proposal June 7, according to Reece.

Initially, the three-year agreement called for each entity to pay one third of the costs. However, the new proposal requires that third only for the first year. After that the Ecology Action Center will conduct a usage survey, and determine each governing body’s second- and third-year costs, she said.

Several council members responded to Soeldner’s comments, with many saying they didn’t agree with his characterization that Normal’s proposal threatened the other governing bodies.

In other business, the council:

  • Approved a standard 10-year agreement with the Illinois Department of Transportation for traffic signal maintenance and energy costs.
  • Made an agreement with the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association regarding promotion exams.
  • Conditionally approved the final plat for a Jiffy Lube and a lot for future commercial use, near Meijer, at 1990 E. College Ave.
  • Heard arguments during its special meeting, on why the town should make its playgrounds more accessible to children with disabilities. The unique Powerpoint presentation was led by several Parkland and Grove elementary fourth graders, and teacher Connie Stanczak, who joined the meeting via Zoom.

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