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Bloomington leaders cautious, but optimistic about city's upcoming fiscal year

The Bloomington City Council meets remotely Jan. 24, 2022. The virtual meetings are livestreamed on the city's YouTube channel.
The Bloomington City Council meets remotely Jan. 24, 2022. The virtual meetings are livestreamed on the city's YouTube channel.

Bloomington leaders are cautiously optimistic about the city’s finances in the upcoming year, after outlining the proposed $270 million budget — up 7% from the current one — at the city council's meeting Monday night.

City administrators told the council the COVID-19 pandemic still makes the local economy unpredictable, but they said federal aid, plus a projected increase in sales tax revenue, are positives.

“We have guarded optimism for the city, and the region,” said City Manager Tim Gleason, noting the city is not past COVID yet.

Also at Monday’s remote meeting, the council OK’d further study of an affordable housing initiative, and approved spending $1.7 million on a sewer overflow improvement project.

Budget outlook good

The council won’t adopt the city’s fiscal 2023 budget until mid-April, but Monday’s discussion served as the kickoff to a budget review period, said city finance chief Scott Rathbun.

“We’ll be rolling out more details in the upcoming weeks,” he said. The formal budget proposal comes to the council on Feb. 28.

Overall, Rathbun told the council, the budget has seen between 2% and 3% growth over the past four-year period. He said fiscal 2022 revenue is trending well, especially in sales tax revenue for online sales, and with legalized marijuana sales.

An additional $5.6 million is coming from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The $269.1 million FY23 budget is about $17.3 million higher than the current budget, with about $57 million in capital projects planned. The budget calls for about $122 million in the city’s main general fund.

Gleason reminded residents interested in how the city budgets for the year to view Bloomington’s online Budget 101 Video Series. After February’s budget meeting, a public hearing is set for March 14.

Incentives could boost affordable housing options

Most of the council wants to explore how Bloomington might offer incentives to improve existing housing options in the city — in particular, renovation or preservation of some older structures.

The council voted 6-3 Monday to further study an initiative proposed by Ward 1’s Jamie Mathy.

Voting “no” were Ward 2’s Donna Boelen; Ward 3’s Sheila Montney; and Ward 5’s Nick Becker.

Addressing a need for affordable housing options is what spurred the idea, said Mathy.

“There’s a shortage of houses for purchase; there’s a shortage of units for rental at the same time,” he said.

New construction is good, he said. But continued expansion to the far east side means more city costs for services — pipes, sewers, and roads, for example, he said. But this proposal to create an incentive package aims to improve housing that already exists.

“How do we incentivize some of them to build into those preservation and regeneration zones and do more in-fill development,” he said. “People can buy some of these older homes that have fallen into disrepair,” and renovate them to make them better places to live, he said.

Prior to the vote, the council's newest member, De Urban of Ward 6 praised the idea. She urged fellow council members to consider Monday's vote wouldn't create a program, but rather just allow city staff to explore the possibility.

Although “Bring It On" — Bloomington’s Comprehensive Plan — identifies core areas of Bloomington as spots ripe for renovation and preservation work, Ward 4’s Julie Emig noted the so-called regeneration and preservation zones in that plan aren’t limited to the downtown area.

Mathy said he expects city staff to update the council in a few months. Meanwhile, they'll reach out to the Bloomington Planning Commission and others about such an initiative.

“The city will research whatever the possibilities are,” said Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe.

Upgrade aims to reduce sewer overflow risk

Also Monday, the council approved a $1.7 million water project — the second phase of Sugar Creek Pump Station improvements. The four-phase project focuses on reducing the risk of a major sanitary sewer overflow. Following historic June floods that damaged many areas of Bloomington, the council dedicated months to looking at the city’s aging water infrastructure.

This second phase reduces the size of one force main, and adds a backup force main. Low bidder A&R Mechanic Services has charge of the project, set for a summer completion. The council also approved spending about $10,000 for necessary easements.

To accommodate the project, another one will be postponed: About $200,000 of the Sugar Creek force main funds originally were designated for the Gray Avenue sanitary sewer project.

In other business, the council:

  • Approved spending about $300,000 with G.A. Rich and Sons Inc. for a settled water piping improvement project.
  • Rejected a single $58,000 bid to construct a new Grossinger Motors arena entrance near the ticket box windows. According to council materials, staff is looking for a cheaper alternative. The project would add  main access to the Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau space, leased since past May.
  • Approved spending $55,000 to cover the city's portion of a three-year, stormwater education program managed by the Ecology Action Center. Other members include Normal, McLean County and the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District.

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