New hiring and other projects included as Normal Town Council reviews next year’s budget plan
The Normal Town Council met Wednesday to review town staff’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins April 1.
The 2022-23 budget proposes total spending of $192.6 million, a 16.5% increase over the current year’s estimates.
Notable budget items include several parks projects, a new fire station, a pedestrian railroad underpass at Uptown Station, and 23 new town staff positions across multiple departments.
Although the proposed new staff constitute the biggest portion of new expenditures, the town has cut nearly 60 staff positions since 2017, and the positions that are proposed to be added will put the number of staffers on Normal’s payroll still below the 2017 number.
Of particular interest to the council were the communications department’s proposed additions of a full-time graphic designer and a full-time social media manager, which Communications Director Cathy Oloffson said will save the town some money by relieving other departments of the burden of those duties while strengthening the town’s branding and its connection to citizens. The duties are currently fulfilled by a rotating cast of interns.
Outside of 23 new salaries to fund, the council’s primary expenditure concerns are for apparent anomalies in the water fund and the town staff health and dental fund.
The water department expects to run business as usual, but its regular operation expenses are projected to vastly outpace growth due, in part, to a doubling in price of the department’s lime sludge removal contract and a 17.5% increase in chemical pricing.
“That’s an additional $375,000 that we have in expenses, and we’re literally doing nothing different than what we’ve done in past years,” said Director of Water John Burkhart.
Financial staff do not expect this to be an imminent issue until 2023-2024 and beyond, but City Manager Pam Reece insisted that staff is being proactive on that and other matters. The town typically works from a five-year budget plan.
“If we see something of concern in year three or four, as we’re doing our projections, we’re not just gonna wait until year three or four and just keep our fingers crossed that they solve themselves,” Reece said.
Health and dental insurance costs are currently exploding due to a flood of town employees seeking non-emergency medical care after avoiding doctors’ offices during the initial pandemic panic.
“People went back to the doctor for a variety of issues, and sometimes those issues became more significant due to the inability to get to a doctor during that time, so we’re seeing a lot of claim costs go up there,” said Director of Finance Andrew Huhn.
Town staff are still figuring out how to resolve the issue, and a large cash payout for the unexpected claims will likely figure into the final draft of the budget.
The atmosphere of pandemic-related uncertainty caused last year’s budget to be what Huhn called “one of the most conservative budgets we’ve ever had,” but a sooner-than-expected economic recovery makes the town’s financial outlook a bit more rosy.
“We’re now, for the most part, in a post-COVID economic perspective, and we ended 2021 a little better than we expected,” Huhn said. “Internet sales tax is now a thing, and there’s just significant economic growth, so we’re really in a much better position than we thought we’d be this time last year.”
Revenue for next year is projected to be $181.5 million, an 8.9% increase over the current year’s estimates. About 50% of that revenue comes from combined sales and property taxes. Staff projects state and local sales tax to increase to 11% and 13.5% respectively, and they expect economic engines like Rivian to continue to drive commercial and residential growth.
“It probably always won’t be like this,” said Mayor Chris Koos, “There may be another crisis down the road that sets us back. The time, for me, to act is now. Let’s get this done.”