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Flood Victims to Bloomington City Council: Fix Sewers Now

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WGLT
Bloomington resident Gary Donohue addresses the Bloomington City Council at its meeting Monday, July 12, 2021, at the Government Center.

Nearly a dozen residents of a neighborhood hit hard during last month’s flooding addressed the Bloomington City Council on Monday, with many emotionally recounting the impact of sewers backing up. Several blamed the city for not fixing that area’s combined sewer system before other parts of town.

A multi-agency resource center will be set up this weekend to help McLean County residents struggling with the June 24-25 flood’s aftermath, City Manager Tim Gleason told the council.

During public comments, 10 speakers said they wanted the Eastgate neighborhood, which stretches west of Regency from Washington Street to Oakland Avenue, to be a higher priority for Bloomington’s public works department addressing the combined sewer overflow (CSO) issue.

Fighting back tears, Eastgate resident Tina Sipula said flooding and combined sewer overflow destroyed her basement, and has resulted in health issues for her family. She’s now on her third round of antibiotics, despite hiring a reclamation company to sanitize the basement.

“We lost furniture, books, photo albums, letters from lost loved ones — personal items that can never, ever be replaced,” she said.

“A peace of mind has been taken away,” said neighbor Ann Miller, who said her home doesn’t feel like home now that she’s a disaster victim.

Gary Donohue, a resident of the neighborhood, thanked Ward 8 council member Jeff Crabill for meeting last week with affected residents about the issue.

Donohue described the CSO this way: “The human waste sewage and the runoff rainwater is combined into one line in the city — banned in most states." He said his family had to stay in a hotel more than a week following the June floods.

“It’s now a subterranean labyrinth of these co-mingled sewer lines. And you’ve heard stories here today that just don’t happen to the other communities called Bloomington. It happens to us. Every year something like this is happening,” he said.

“This wasn’t a rain problem so much as it was bad planning, bad civil work,” said Donohue, adding Eastgate residents want a solution. “And we don’t want to wait until 2025,” he said.

Following Sipula’s and the other public comments, much of the council meeting focused on those June storms — both how to respond to property damage and how to prevent similar future disasters. Bloomington has been addressing the combined sewer issue, but some commenters on Monday asked why a low-lying neigbhorhood such as Eastgate wasn’t prioritized.

Sipula asked the council why Eastgate’s combined sewers weren’t corrected before other higher-ground areas such as Country Club Place and Sunset Road.

“I would think the areas of most need should be addressed first,” she said, noting the city’s known about the problem since at least 2014. “We come to you begging for your help, to reallocate funds if needed, so we can get the sewers modernized in one of the most needed areas of town — in Eastgate,” she said.

Some residents spoke of installing check valves after previous floods, but they said those are not solving the big problem.

Resident Mary Kramp said the sporadic installation of check valves may protect individual homes, but cause other problems by increasing pressure on the main sewers. "That may then increase the chance of flooding sewage coming into other neighbors’ homes,” she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls the combined sewer overflow (CSO) issue a priority water pollution concern for nearly 900 U.S. municipalities.

Several council members asked Gleason questions on the flood response. He said it'll be the focus of Monday's committee-as-a-whole meeting.

Ward 7 council member Mollie Ward said the city should look into using the overhead sewer fund program to move quicker on the CSO issue, beyond the current Locust-Colton project.

A few days after the floods, Bloomington Public Works Director Kevin Koth told WGLT that while the newer sections of Bloomington have separated sewers, older ones do not. The city does separate those lines when rebuilds happen, but there is a lot of infrastructure to change out he said.

The city handles a multimillion-dollar rebuild like that every few years, he noted.

The McLean County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) reports more than 1,000 homes and businesses in the county had structural damage in last month’s floods and more than 100 properties were heavily damaged or destroyed.

Gleason said the city’s received more than 500 flood-related claims. The city’s third-party administrator PMA has made initial contact on each claim, he said, but added he didn’t know the number of assessment visits completed.

“Every incident is being reviewed as a case-by-case basis,” he said. "We very much appreciate the community’s patience with something that many have been victims of. We’ll get through this the best we can.”

Ward 4 council member Julie Emig asked if PMA had a timeline, but Gleason said he didn’t know. He told her claims still can be submitted.

Monday marked the first time the city council has met in person since March 2020. The meeting convened in Room 400 of the Government Center downtown. That’s the McLean County Board room, and Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe thanked board leaders for sharing the space with Bloomington City Council for the rest of 2021.

During the meeting, which also was live-streamed, Gleason shared several flood-related updates:

  • During the McLean County disaster-relief resource event this weekend at Bloomington Junior High School, the pop-up resource center will have representatives from the city, county and various agencies to help people navigate the red tape of disaster recovery. Walk-in hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
  • Special bulk-waste pick up continues, with a target completion date of July 20. Residents can see when public works will be in their neighborhood via a color-coded map on the city’s website.
  • At next Monday’s committee-of-the-whole meeting, Public Works Director Kevin Koethe will update the council on the status of Bloomington’s disaster response to the flooding, Gleason said. A more thorough report will come in August, once data is compiled, he added.

IT project

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council approved the city’s information technology strategic plan on an 8-0 vote. Council member Jenn Carrillo was absent.

Bloomington’s IT Director Craig McBeath answered council’s questions about the 2021-2023 IT plan, noting no money is committed to the plan in its early stages.

Ward 3’s Sheila Montney and Ward, along with several other council members, urged the IT department to focus on improving the city’s website.

Mwilambwe noted the city’s IT department is relatively small compared with some local entities, and he thanked the IT staff for handling the extra workload thrust on it by the pandemic’s move to nearly all virtual environments.

McBeath noted Bloomington employs 13 IT staff, including seven full time. At this time, two of those staff members oversee the city’s website using a content management system.

New vaccine clinic sites

Gleason said McLean County continues to be among the Top 10 per capita for receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, among the state’s 102 counties.

Still, he said efforts to encourage people to get the vaccine continue.

Mount Pisgah Baptist Church on Lee Street, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Jackson Street, will begin hosting vaccine clinics coordinated by the McLean County Health Department and the local chapter of the NAACP, Gleason told the council.

Motor Fuel Tax spending

Also on Monday, the council voted 8-0 to allocate $500,000 in state Motor Fuel Tax funds for street lighting, electrical energy and rental charges.

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