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Normal council passes tax levy and hears ARPA spending recommendations

Normal Town Council member Kevin McCarthy at a recent meeting.
Jeffrey Smudde
Normal Town Council member Kevin McCarthy at a recent meeting.

Town of Normal staff suggested Monday evening using $10.8 million in federal pandemic relief dollars on a variety of initiatives, ranging from cybersecurity and new technology to health care and transit services.

Staff made initial recommendations on $9,334,000 of the total during a work session with $1,545,111 yet to be decided, based on council input. The money is coming from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.

Included in the recommendations are:

  • $10,000 per year to the Community Health Care Clinic for COVID-19 testing and related operating and capital expenses.
  • $100,000 in year one for water and sewer accounts receivable help for past due customers.
  • $500,000 for community behavioral and mental health initiatives such as Marcfirst.
  • $16,800 per year to expand support for the Small Business Development Center.
  • A maximum of $6.6 million in municipal revenue loss from the pandemic.
  • $100,000 in cybersecurity technology tools, system improvements and temporary staff.
  • $3.5 million for Savannah Green subdivision improvement to design, repair, and replace roads and alleys.
  • $2 million for intersection improvements at Ford Jesse Road/Landmark Drive, Fort Jesse/Greenbriar, and Greenbriar/Shepard Road to address mobility concerns at the two closest intersections to the high accident location of Fort Jesse/Veterans Parkway.
  • $200,000 per year of increased support to underwrite the cost of One-Fare-For-All pricing and to support transit service.
  • $1 million to study storm and sanitary sewer analysis and implement solutions, including manhole rehab and inflow and infiltration remediation to prevent future flooding.
  • $1 million to install a broadband network along Raab Road, from Millennium Boulevard to Towanda Avenue. This would develop a public-private partnership to bridge the digital divide in underserved neighborhoods.

Other projects staff considered include public art, citizen engagement technology/software that would support policy and service delivery, accessible playground improvements and other community projects, a truck/fleet routing system, council chambers equipment, sewer monitoring along West Hovey Avenue, and a sewer expansion and capacity study in north Normal.
The town conducted an online survey that attempted to gather data from people that statistically represented residential demographics as part of the process to create the recommendations.

Funds must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

The council then voted to approve a tax levy of $13.4 million in property taxes next year. That is an increase of $326,000. If growth assumptions hold true, the tax rate would not go up.

As he did previously, council member Stan Nord argued for reducing the levy, saying public safety pension obligations could come from other funding sources.

Council member Kevin McCarthy said historically the policy of the council has been to use property taxes to fund general operations. This year, that is not the case so that the town can make mandated increases in pension contributions.

“Essentially, the general fund is getting a $1.3 million cut,” said McCarthy.

Nord insisted the town has a surplus.

“I think it’s disingenuous. What’s the point of telling residents we’re saving them money when we never save any money?” said Nord.

But Kathleen Lorenz noted the town has obligated that money, to debt reduction, for instance, a move made a year and a half ago.

“We committed to an east side fire station. That’s another major capital improvement that some of that money will go to. And the rest, if there is any, will go to other capital projects so we can continue our pay-as-you-go capital projects,” said Lorenz.

McCarthy also dismissed Nord’s claims of achievable taxpayer savings, noting the pension payments are mandated by the state and would have to come from somewhere.

“There’s a whole lot of double counting. You can’t spend a tax dollar twice. You can only spend it once,” said McCarthy, adding staff is asked year after year to do more with the same amount of money, or with less.

“For the last four years we have kept the levy essentially flat with less than a 1% increase. I don’t think that has been held in perspective till this point.”

In other action, the council also approved an economic development incentive agreement with O’Brien Automotive. O’Brien commits to building a new dealership on Landmark Drive and in return can recapture up to $850,000 in sales tax money over seven years if sales top existing levels.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.