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Bloomington Council Seeks Legal Clarity On Direct Flood Aid Question

Michele Steinbacher
The Bloomington City Council meets Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.
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After three months of debating how the city can best help flood victims repair their homes, a proposal to provide direct local aid narrowly failed, for now, at Monday night's Bloomington City Council meeting.

Instead, the council opted to direct staff to keep studying the possibility of such a program, while connecting victims of the June 25-26 floods with state and other assistance programs.

“We would all like to do something really fast. But again, we’re talking about taxpayer money here. So we have to be very careful how we set this up,” Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said after the meeting, reflecting on the split among the council.

He said between now and the Oct. 11 council meeting, Bloomington's legal staff will further research how to craft such a program, so the public purpose is clear.

That legal term, “public purpose,” was the focus of discussion before the 4-3 vote against creating the program Monday. Ward 2’s Donna Boelen, Ward 3’s Sheila Montney, Ward 5’s Nick Becker, and Ward 9’s Tom Crumpler voted against the program.

Voting in favor of the proposal were Mollie Ward, Ward 7, Jeff Crabill, Ward 8, and Julie Emig, Ward 4. Council member Jamie Mathy, of Ward 1, was absent.

Boelen, Montney and Becker said their “no” votes came on the grounds that such disaster assistance to individuals is not the role of municipal government — not part of the council’s “public purpose.” Crumpler said he preferred the alternate option, the one that passed later. In that, the city wouldn't get involved until other funding opportunities were exhausted.

"I'm concerned about the legal footing the city would be put on," Boelen said before the vote.

Montney mentioned the city's legal staff had not found any other Illinois municipality that had provided direct aid to individuals in a disaster situation.

The council did vote 7-0 to support two other flood-related responses. The first adds more than $200,000 to a residential sewer improvement grant program. The other broadens the joint authority of the mayor and city manager to push through projects related to water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure improvements — but only if they already are budgeted.

The June flooding devastated hundreds of homes and businesses. Many people filed claims with the city’s insurer, but most were denied because the cause was deemed a natural disaster.

The topic has been the focus at every council meeting since, including last week's work session. On Monday, Ward, who proposed the direct-aid program, said the council needs to stop talking about the issue, and start acting.

“I am disappointed with tonight's vote. We as a city need to stop talking about this, and planning about this, in general ways. We need to get very specific," she said.

Ward said she disagrees with those opposing the direct aid program. "We haven't been able to come up with a legal argument for not doing this," she said.

If such a direct aid program passes at the Oct. 11 meeting, it would require flood victims to first exhaust other options. Up first is about $650,000 available through the Illinois Housing Development Authority’s housing rehabilitation program. Next, staff would connect victims to other applicable government or nonprofit programs.

Only after taking those steps, could residents pursue local financial assistance under the proposal.

Ward said the priority now needs to be for city staff to make very clear how flood-affected residents can apply for the IDHA grants. "So we can get that process moving," she said.

Other flood response votes

With Monday’s two other votes on flood relief, the city adds more than $200,000 to a residential sewer improvement grant program, and broadens joint authority of the mayor and city manager to push through related projects.

Until now, the city had set aside $40,000 annually for its Overhead Sewer Grant Program. Through that, eligible residents could apply for a $4,500 grant. Money went toward the costs of reconnecting a structure’s basement plumbing fixtures to an approved pump system capable of rerouting those fixtures to an overhead sewer connection. Monday’s vote increases fiscal 2022's grant pool to $250,000, and makes that the annual budgeted amount for the overhead program.

Because of the flooding — and renewed attention on the combined sewer system problems — city leaders expect a rise in applications this year, and in the future. So, the council OK’d the nearly 85% increase to the program.

Staff is expected to develop a plan for the city to cover a percentage of each project’s cost, rather than a flat fee, and to develop a repayment plan for those awarded loans, said City Manager Tim Gleason.

The expanded authority vote is intended to shave about a month off each water infrastructure project. It allows the mayor and city manager to OK contracts, designs and similar paperwork specifically involving water infrastructure projects, with the caveat that such actions be reported to the council at the next meeting. It also expands the city manager’s current $50,000 spending authority on those matters.

Historic Preservation

Also Monday, the council voted 7-0 to adopt the 2021 Bloomington Historic Preservation Plan.

It’s been nearly two decades since the last plan was adopted in 2004. At Monday’s meeting, Nick Kalogeresis, of Chicago-based preservation planners the Lakota Group, presented key takeaways from the plan, including the need to better communicate preservation’s role in cultural context.

“One of the challenges is trying to increase awareness of the benefits of preservation,” he said.

Kimberly Smith, the city’s assistant economic and community development director, said Monday’s vote doesn’t have any budget implications. Rrather it gives staff permission to start exploring how to move forward. One priority is conducting a local survey on the topic, she said.

Kalogeresis urged Bloomington leaders to streamline the process for people to apply for preservation projects, to encourage economic incentives for projects, and to develop potential neighborhood conservation districts.

The 2021 plan was a two-phase project, started in 2019. Focus groups met in February 2020, just before the pandemic lockdown, he said.

Kalogeresis told the council it’s challenging trying to educate the community about the benefits of historic preservation. It’s about more than architecture, he told them, it’s also about bringing the community together.

City manager pay raise

In another matter, the council OK’d, as part of its consent agenda, a 2.5% pay raise for Gleason, retroactive to July 23. That brings his annual base salary to $202,149.

The amended contract also replaces a $550 monthly allowance for using his personal car, with equal monthly deposits going into an existing retirement fund. Gleason’s been the city manager since 2018. This spring, the council voted to extend his contract through 2025.

In other business, the council:

  • Amended its FY22 budget to add nearly $700,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, and CDBG-CV (Cares Act) funds not used in fiscal 2021. These already have been allocated for projects. 
  • Amended the FY22 budget to cover $175,000 in remodeling costs. Normal-based J Spencer Construction is completing projects in the downtown Government Center, which are part of moving the city’s finance and legal departments to the third and fourth floors, respectively, and creating additional electrical work in the first floor’s Hub.
  • Heard from Mwilambwe regarding the empty Ward 6 seat. He said finding a nominee who will be a good fit for the council, the ward, and Bloomington as a whole has been tougher than he anticipated. Former council member Jenn Carrillo resigned in August after moving to a residence outside the ward. A new council member must be appointed by Oct. 31, according to council rules.
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