Q&A: Bloomington’s City Manager Talks Infrastructure Timetable And Denied Flood Claims
City Manager Tim Gleason says Bloomington is in an “infrastructure chapter” of its history right now. But after last month’s historic rains, some residents want to skip to the end of the story a little quicker.
Some are calling on the Bloomington City Council to increase and accelerate sewer and stormwater infrastructure work. Specifically, a significant portion of the city still has combined storm and sanitary sewer lines, a problem that contributed to sewer backups during the June storms. But sewer separation projects are costly—millions of dollars for even several blocks of work.
Gleason spoke Tuesday on WGLT’s Sound Ideas about these infrastructure issues and more.
WGLT: Is it fair to say there is interest among city council members in accelerating sewer and stormwater work, faster than what the timetable was before, in light of the storms?
Gleason: They want to understand what that means. How do we do that? Or are we able to do that? So trying to build upon this conversation and put the elected officials on firm ground so that when this conversation occurs, they can make more informed decisions.
What do you know so far? What options are there for speeding things up?
I think there is a possibility. You know, one, I want to communicate what we're already doing, in terms of infrastructure projects. What's in queue? And then also have that finance discussion: What can we afford? And then if there is a reprioritization of some of the projects, as a result of a storm event—as rare as that might be—the fact that no municipality is going to build a system that would have the capacity to handle something like that, I understand that there might be a desire to reprioritize.
So (I) definitely want to put council in the firmest ground so that they can make an informed decision, if they are going to change what's already in queue.
There’s been a lot of focus on combined sewer since the storm. If the city had completely separate storm and sewer lines on back on June 25, how bad would the damage have been? What sort of difference does that even make?
I'm not sure that I'm able, or even the brightest engineer, might be able to respond to that. I think that what you would see is a clear picture that a faulty sump pump, or a faulty downspout on the outside, in a rain event, a storm event like this, that would have magnified that these were issues on the residential side, or on the business side, versus this question that there is something faulty that did not function properly on the city infrastructure side.
So that answer would be a little clearer potentially.
I think so, but I don’t how much clearer. … The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) approves all of our infrastructure when it's related to water and sewer. And there is nothing in there, in the agreement that we have (with IEPA), that said you need to advance this, that you have got problems that are so immediate that you have to make this kind of investment. Which has occurred in other communities that I've served in. That's not the case in Bloomington.
You've made the point a couple different times that the flooding that we saw in June is extremely rare. By making that point, are you suggesting that the council should not overreact to what is really an outlying event here?
No, not at all. I just am trying to … emotions are high after a disaster like this. Do not want to diminish, you know, even if you had one victim, a victim of property loss in a situation like that, it's very much a priority for that one person. We obviously have more than that in this community.
What I am trying to communicate is, this is an event that we have described as 100- to a 500-year event. I think that's worn out, because people will go back to 2014 storm or 2008 storm.
I think a better way to communicate this is that this is a fraction of a percent chance that a storm event like this would occur in any given year. And I think that that just shapes how rare of an event this is, and then you take it, or I believe a manager should take this, and then talk about building a system that would have the capacity to handle such a rare event is not something any municipality is going to be able to justify that cost.
Now, to your point or question about, am I trying to shape the discussion or guide the council in a different direction? Not at all. I just want them to be as informed as they possibly can be. And if they give me marching orders, you know, as a result of this storm to reprioritize, I'll do it. I'll find a way.
During your remarks Monday night about infrastructure, you specifically mentioned the O'Neil Park renovation and the library expansion project, as two things coming down the pike that the city should be thinking about. Why mention those in the context of under-the-street infrastructure?
In terms of larger projects, and it's not to cause concern for anyone, but you only have so much capacity to borrow. And if we're talking about moving up different projects, it takes away from your (borrowing) abilities, and it's something that the council needs to be aware of, and the community for that matter.
I’m not suggesting you're insinuating this, but it definitely is not to scare anyone. These are just major projects that may have to give because we only have so much borrowing capacity, if we're gonna change some of the order of some of these infrastructure projects.
Monday night you shared that a majority of the flood claims submitted against the city will be ultimately denied. How many claims are we talking about?
Over 500 were filed. And at the end of the day, I do not think it will surprise the community, whether you're a storm victim or not, that an event like this will fall under the category of Act of God. It's an insurance term, it's a legal term that they use, and it applies to the storm event as well.
I think that we have maybe one to two dozen that will that require further evaluation. So I think over 500 will be denied for that reason that I just did share.
And as we were talking about this (Monday) night, I know the letters have been sent on Friday, probably the rest went out (Monday). I just felt it appropriate for me to share what I know instead of letting the residents that have done exactly what we've asked them to do by filing a claim and finding out a day or two later. So it just felt like the right time to do it. And I'm glad that I did.
Ultimately, though, the city did tell residents to file claims if they thought the city might be at fault. The city put it in press releases related to the flooding. Was the city giving people false hope that they might have a chance for a successful claim if, ultimately, so many of them are going to be denied?
No, I don't think so at all. I think it was a normal step in recovery. It's the normal step in an event like this. And while this might be a step that we move beyond, we do have the Small Business (Administration) loan that's available to us. And that's not a guarantee; that's through the efforts of the town, the city, working with the county, and getting the attention at the federal level that this is something that can be justified and can be a benefit to our residents and small-business owners. So it's a low interest, longer term loan.
And then additionally, I say we look to Springfield. And it's no guarantee again, but you know in an event like this calling on the state to consider assistance at the local level, it's a pathway that I've been down before in a different disaster in a different community. And it's one that we should call on our local electeds—we have two state senators and two state representatives, and make that appeal or that pitch to the governor's administration in Springfield.