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Normal Council OKs Plan to Standardize Economic Incentives

Normal Finance Director Andrew Huhn speaks during the Normal Town Council meeting, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in the Council Chambers in Uptown Station.
Michele Steinbacher
Normal Finance Director Andrew Huhn speaks during the Normal Town Council meeting, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in the Council Chambers in Uptown Station.

The Normal Town Council on Monday gave the thumbs up to a plan to standardize economic incentives for companies locating in the area’s enterprise zone.

The vote brings the Bloomington-Normal-McLean County Enterprise Zone one step closer to offering the same baseline incentive components to companies locating in the zone that covers parts of McLean and Ford counties.

Also Monday, the council OK’d renewing the town’s employee insurance plan that comes with a 17% group health rate hike; agreed to purchase new vehicles for the Normal Fire Department; and finalized its 2020-2021 budget to reflect minor year-end adjustments.

After a presentation from Patrick Hoban, who leads the area’s Economic Development Council (EDC), a unanimous vote showed council members favor creating uniform economic incentives.

“The goal is to have one coupon we all understand,” said Hoban. “This will be the rules to offer everyone.”

Council member Karyn Smith asked if the proposed standardized package is similar to other regional communities, such as Peoria. Hoban told her it's on par.

A related vote signals support for an incentives package oversight group, an intergovernmental agreement between Normal and the other communities in the zone, including Bloomington, Gibson City, and Ford and McLean counties. The proposal heads next to Gibson City and Ford County. Bloomington and McLean County previously OK’dthe uniform package and the intergovernmental agreement.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity oversees the state’s enterprise zone. But the local EDC handles thenearly 15 square miles in this region.

Fire truck financing planned

The council also voted to finance a $1.3 million ladder fire truck through a 10-year fixed-term loan. The vote means the town will reserve the cash that had been budgeted for the truck.

The vote to pursue financing was 6-1, with council member Stan Nord voting “no.” He said he opposed the town moving to a “credit-card” mentality. However, after the financing decision passed, Nord joined in a unanimous vote to purchase the truck.

Previously, the town typically paid cash for its vehicles and equipment. However, financing is in Normal’s best interest, given the truck's high price tag, current market rates, and the uncertainty of the pandemic’s economic outlook, said Normal finance chief Andrew Huhn.

“The rates are actually below what we would earn on our $1 million anyways. So, really it’s a very favorable position to go in and finance this,” he said.

The council waived the bidding process, and expects the Spartan/Smeal 105-foot aerial ladder truck, from Lincoln-based Fire Apparatus Supply Team, to arrive next summer. It replaces a 75-foot-ladder truck taken out of service in 2020.

At one point, Nord accused town staff of being dishonest by proposing Normal finance the truck with a loan instead of with budgeted cash. He said town officials had told Normal residents the money in that fund would be spent a certain way.

“Now when its time to use it, we’re doing a bait and switch. We’re going to use it for something else,” said Nord.

But Mayor Chris Koos noted the council decides whether money is moved from the vehicle and equipment fund, not staff.

Reece responded to Nord, saying Normal's staff is proud of its budget decisions, and that the industry continually recognizes its financial integrity with awards. She said staff recommended pursuing financing for the fire truck in that spirit.

“We believe it makes financial sense for the organization, and ultimately the taxpayers. If council disagrees, that’s absolutely fine and we’ll pay cash,” she said.

Several council members and Mayor Chris Koos defended town staff against Nord’s accusations.

“If you think there’s dishonest activity, or baiting and switching, you should look at me and your fellow council members because at the end of the day we’re making that decision, not staff,” said Koos.

Nord continued to criticize the financing option, taking the conversation into areas of broader budget concerns and ignoring Koos’ calls to move on, and that Nord was out of order. Finally, Koos slammed his gavel, noting he’d never done so in 18 years as mayor.

As part of its consent agenda, the council approved spending up to $45,000 on replacement parts for a different department fire engine, and spending $290,000 to replace and equip an aging ambulance. The council waived bidding requirements on both of those, as well.

Employee insurance

Health insurance rates for Town of Normal staff will go up 17% effective in January, after Monday’s 6-1 vote. Council member Kathleen Lorenz voted “no,” saying she’d prefer the town’s insurance committee return with alternatives.

Lorenz said she was disappointed that projections of an 8% increase had more than doubled, with no warning to council, and no discussion prior to Monday’s vote.

Mike Wojcik, vice president of Horton Group, which handles the town’s group insurance, told the council the pandemic caused the environment that led to the jump in rates.

The renewal package— for employee group health, dental and life insurance — will cost the Town an extra $88,500 for the plan year. Dental and life insurance rates will remain level.

Budget amendments

The council also unanimously approved a budget amendment that essentially closes the books on the fiscal 2020-2021 budget.

The change reflects a $7.2 million revenue increase and an $8.4 million expenditure increase, said finance director Huhn. The amendment OKs internal transfers, moving the extra funds to the current year’s budget, he said.

In other business, the council:

  • Reapproved the Kelley Glen preliminary development plan at Henry and Raab roads, and approved a third final plat there. A dozen single-family homes now can be constructed on the three-acre lot.
  • OK’d spending about $520,000 with Engineered Fluid Inc.-Solutions to replace the town’s north booster station at Raab Road and School Street, as well as waiving the bid requirements, as delivery's not expected until November. The town also has budgeted up to $350,000 for future installation: Staff says costs likely will be closer to $150,000.
  • Approved paying Desman Design Management $56,000 for its team to complete a parking study for Uptown Normal.
  • Vacated its right-of-way on Electric Avenue near the Rivian Automotive plant. The electric automaker plans to build a security building there, which is a dead-end stretch saddled by Rivian properties.
Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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