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Bloomington City Council adopts $26.8 million combined city, library tax levies

Bloomington Finance Director Scott Rathbun answers questions during the Bloomington City Council meeting Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.
Michele Steinbacher
Bloomington Finance Director Scott Rathbun answers questions during the Bloomington City Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, at the downtown Government Center.

The Bloomington Public Library’s $25 million expansion is moving forward — after the project secured major funding Monday night in the form of a tax levy and city-issued general obligation bonds.

The Bloomington City Council voted 6-3 to adopt the $5.9 million library levy. Council members Donna Boelen, of Ward 2; Sheila Montney, Ward 3; and Nick Becker, Ward 5, voted no, citing opposition to a tax increase.

However, the council unanimously OK’d adoption of the city’s property tax levy of nearly $21 million. The combined 2021 tax levy of $26.8 million estimates a tax rate at 1.39%, nearly identical to last year’s 1.36% rate, said Scott Rathbun, Bloomington’s finance director.

The library levy marks an 18.1% increase over the current levy. For the owner of a $165,000 home, that's estimated to add $22 to the annual tax bill.

Also Monday, the council voted to opt into a nationwide settlement with some of the nation’s major opioid makers, possibly bringing Bloomington about $500,000; and it heard an update on the city’s plan related to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The council has publicly discussed the combined property tax levy for more than a month, with most of the focus on the library levy.

The majority of Bloomington property taxes go to the District 87 school district. The city's portion represents about 13 cents of every property tax dollar; and the library's about 3 cents, said Rathbun.

The trio of council members who opposed the library levy said they would have preferred library officials put the entirety of BPL's recent $5.7 million state grant, secured for the expansion project at 205 E. Olive Street, toward cutting the taxpayer burden.

The majority of the council rallied around BPL’s contributions to the project and its splitting the grant 50/50, though. Last week, library officials proposed reducing its tax levy to less than $6 million after it secured the grant. They also proposed reducing the amount the city would borrow from $17 million to $14.2 million.

BPL director Jeanne Hamilton told the board that unless the levy passed, the library would be ineligible for the grant, as it needs $15 million on hand by July.

Library officials said the grant split enables them to return some project cuts made in July, for furniture and technology. With those changes, the project's now estimated at $25.2 million, and slated for completion in August 2023.

The library plans to use about $4 million in reserves, plus $1.7 million in contributions from individual donors, and businesses, for the project, BPL's marketing manager Rhonda Massie said in November. The expansion has been years in the making.

Becker, Boelen and Montney all said they supported the library and its mission. The problem, said Becker, lies in using a tax increase to fund the improvements. He called the BPL decision to take half the grant, and reinvest it into previous project cuts “a slap in the face” to people who oppose the levy.

But council member Jeff Crabill of Ward 8 countered that BPL providing half the state grant was hardly slighting taxpayers, as it enabled the general obligation bonds to go from $17 million to $14.2 million.

Crabill said the council shouldn’t forget many other people support these funding paths for the library’s long-planned expansion, and part of the council's role is appropriating funds.

“Being good financial stewards means spending money appropriately that improves the lives of people in the community,” he said.

With the bonds, the city will pay about $850,000 a year. That’s a fraction of what the city spends on public safety, pensions, roads and other infrastructure, said Crabill.

He also dismissed critics saying that funding the nearly 50-year-old library expansion amounts to taking away from sewer and other infrastructure funding. “Because we’re spending money on the library does not mean we’re spending any less on roads, sewer, or other infrastructure,” said Crabill.

Boelen said she was concerned about a lack of fund raising, saying it was preferable to have the entire grant offset any tax increase. She said BPL only had $13,000 in project donations on the books by Monday. Maybe the landing the grant would slow officials' pace of seeking donations, she said.

"We are definitely committed to continue fundraising," responded Library Board President Julian Westerhout . In fact, he expects more success after this week's vote, noting many donors were hesitant to contribute without the levy passing.

The library earning the nearly $6 million grant represents an additional investment for this project — on behalf of the library, said council member Tom Crumpler of Ward 9. “I feel like they’ve done their part,” he said.

Council member Jamie Mathy of Ward 1 said that while BPL is expected to seek private contributions, the city doesn't require millions of dollars in donations to help budget for upkeep of police, or public works, for example.

The expanded library adds 20,000 square feet, and renovates more than 57,000 square feet of existing space at the Olive Street landmark.

Community space is set to triple, and new technology areas such as a maker's lab are planned. Another key piece of the update will be more accessible entrances, aisles, and other areas.

Opioid drug settlement

The council voted to opt-in to a major drug settlement is with one of the nation's largest opioid makers, Janssen Pharmaceuticals (the parent company of Johnson & Johnson), as well as three of the largest drug distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource-Bergen.

Illinois is expected to bring about $760 million to Illinois, according to council materials, with Bloomington getting about $480,000, over the next two decades. The money received would go toward efforts to reduce the impacts of the opioid epidemic, according to council materials.

This decision means the city can't bring future claims against those opioid drug makers.

The council voted on the matter as part of its consent agenda, with no discussion.

ADA transition plan

Michael Hurt, Bloomington’s chief of diversity and inclusion, presented the board with an update on the city’s transition plan related to the American with Disabilities Act.

In June, the council requested the administration update a 2015 draft of the plan that never moved forward. The document addresses how the city will remove barriers related to disabilities, for equal opportunity employment; and how the city will provide equal access to city programs, activities and services.

Hurt said he expects to garner community feedback on the new draft by reaching out to community groups that work with people with disabilities, and by conducting a public hearing in the next quarter.

In other business, the council

  • Honored former Deputy City Manager Barb Adkins, who died in November 2020. Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe announced the government center's conference room will be named in Adkins' memory. She served in city government roles for more than three decades.
  • Authorized $67,000 in emergency repairs for the Market Street parking garage.
  • Amended its budget for buying liquid chlorine to $80,000—– up 38% from its previous amount, due to rising costs blamed on supply chain issues. The contract with Alexander Chemical Corp. brings a $1,375 per ton price.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.