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Bloomington City Council learns library will reduce its proposed tax levy

Bloomington Public Library Board Member Carol Koos addresses the Bloomington City Council at its meeting, Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.
Michele Steinbacher
Bloomington Public Library Board member Carol Koos addresses the Bloomington City Council at its meeting Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.

When the Bloomington City Council votes next week on a proposed combined $27 million property tax levy, the portion dedicated to the Bloomington Public Library’s levy will be lower than originally suggested, officials heard Monday night.

Library director Jeanne Hamilton told the council during its meeting that news of a nearly $5.7 million state grant awarded to BPL led to the reconfigured proposal. Now, to help finance a planned $22.8 million expansion, the library is proposing a $5.9 million levy, with the city issuing about $14.2 million in general obligation bonds.

The city's total levy is expected to result in a flat tax rate for next year.

“The approval of the levy and bond by the council is still incredibly important,” said Hamilton, because the state library grant requires BPL have at least $15 million on hand for the project by July 2022.

The new proposal is nearly $3 million less in bonds, and a reduction from the original $6.1 million tax levy sought, said Scott Rathbun Bloomington finance chief. The related annual debt service for the new version is expected to be about $850,000 over the next two decades, he said.

The remaining grant money will be used to cushion uncertainty in project construction costs, and replace some equipment and technology items that were cut from the proposal in July, said Hamilton.

The new figure, if approved, would mean an 18% increase over last year’s levied amount for the library district, rather than the original 23% hike.

Library officials expect construction to last about 16 months. An August 2023 unveiling is the target.

Public commenters mostly support library levy

About a dozen people spoke at Monday’s public hearing on the proposed library tax levy.

Nearly all supported the levy increase, citing such factors as Bloomington’s population growth, today’s technology needs, and the aging infrastructure of the nearly 50-year-old building on Olive Street.

Meri Helbig, who works with Life Center for Independent Living, noted the renovation’s planned ground-level entrance would be a game changer for many people with disabilities. Currently, patrons must climb a set of stairs outside the building to reach the main entrance.

Several public commenters said putting money into BPL brings a good return on investment, both for the community as a whole, but also in economic terms: Ward 6 resident Levi Champion told the council The American Library Association says for every $1 in capital investment in public libraries, the city would see about a $5 ROI.

Champion and fellow commenter Noah Tang, each said that peer communities Champaign and Decatur have libraries which are larger and in better shape than Bloomington’s.

Tang, a Bloomington High School history teacher said he supports the levy especially because the city's public library is one of the last public places with free admission.

"This (expansion) is an undeniable need," he said.

Whether the BPL expansion, and related program changes are needed, isn’t in question, only whether the community is willing to fund it, said board member and Bloomington resident Carol Koos. A public library is a community service, which the city provides like any other, she said.

“You’re not asking the water department to hold bake sales when it needs to expand their structures or develop their technology to deliver services to a level that adds to the quality of life for this community. So why do that to the library?” said Koos.

Linda Foster, who leads the local chapter of the NAACP, said that organization also supports the levy increase. Strengthening the library helps build a healthy community, she added.

Bill Bishop, a Ward 3 resident who represents the Homeowners' Association of Harvest Pointe Subdivision was one of two of the hearing's commenters speaking against the levy. He said because of the large amount of taxpayer money involved, the issue should be a referendum on the ballot.

In November, the city council approved the tax levy estimate for both the library and the city.
The same month, the council and the library’s board of trustees both voted to support the BPL expansion, and to use the $17 million (now down to $14.2 million) in bonds to pay for most of it.

State law required Monday’s public hearing on the library’s proposed tax levy because, if approved, it represents an increase higher than 5%, Rathbun said.

In other business, the council:

  • Watched a photo and video presentation led by Kevin Kothe, Public Works director. It focused on this past year’s road and sidewalk projects. City Manager Tim Gleason said the program will be on its website.
  • Approved police body cameras, for the Bloomington Police Department. The two-year contract with Axon Enterprise Inc. brings 15 body-worn cameras, with the possibility of annual renewal.
  • Approved a site plan for a proposed gym at 404 Bronco Drive.
  • Heard from Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe that Gleason has been named to the National Advisory Council for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Gleason is the only Illinoisan on the board, the mayor said.
Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.