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Normal leaders narrowly OK $161 million budget, boosted by $30 million in federal and state aid

The Normal Town Council meets Monday, March 7, 2022, at city hall.
The Normal Town Council meets Monday, March 7, 2022, in council chambers at Uptown Station.

The Normal Town Council narrowly passed its annual budget Monday, securing a $161 million-dollar spending plan for the new fiscal year.

That’s a big chunk of change — a third more than fiscal 2021’s general operating and capital investment budget. The $29 million spike reflects incoming federal COVID-relief funds, and state and grant aid for the Uptown underpass project.

Mayor Chris Koos said he was excited about what this budget will bring the Normal community, after it's faced nearly two decades of issues, ranging from economic recession to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We stretched our budget as tightly as we could. We deferred some projects over the years, hoping for better times,” he said. “Those better times are on us. They are starting to come, right now."

With this budget, Normal begins constructing a new east-side fire station and rebuilding its staff to serve a growing community in need of more services, said Normal City Manager Pam Reece.

“It is a budget in which we are able to invest more in capital projects than we have in many recent years,” she said, adding it also meets financial goals set by the council, including continuing with a long-term debt reduction structure.

But not everyone was on board with the new plan. After debating the FY22 budget's merits for nearly an hour, it barely passed with a 4-3 vote. Kathleen Lorenz, Scott Preston and Stan Nord voted against it.

Among the complaints: Nord said the town's capital investments focus more on amenities than existing infrastructure; Preston said higher sales tax revenue should cushion town residents' pocketbooks more; and Nord and Lorenz opposed budgeting for 20 additional town employees.

But council member Kevin McCarthy said the growth Normal is undergoing requires more staffing. “What we’re seeing here is a rapid increase in the demand for services,” he said.

Reece said the current staffing model is unsustainable, adding under the current climate, it's been difficult to retain employees.

Preston said besides the federal money and other grants, Normal saw higher sales tax revenue. In the meantime, Normal residents faced a higher cost of living, higher gasoline prices and more. Lorenz echoed his concerns about economic uncertainty for residents.

“There are things in this budget that I think everyone at this table might not like,” said Koos, but at this tail-end of the budget planning process, picking apart the plan isn't tenable.

“You’re going to have to choose it holistically or not,” he said.

The mayor said voting “no” on the budget, in reality, meant voting against a plan that retires $8 million of debt, brings the town’s fund balance to 20%, and sets aside money for needed road work, sewer work and more. Overall, it's a budget that benefits the community, he said, by decreasing town debt, and increasing capital expenditures.

Others supporting the budget Monday were council members McCarthy, Chemberly Cummings, and Karyn Smith.

Prior to the vote, all four urged fellow council members not to vote against the plan just because of perceived issues with particular line items.

Smith said rebuilding the staff with 20 hires made sense now that Normal is in “a growth mode.” She said the town eliminated three times that number of employees from 2019 to 2021.

Cummings said the budget process has been lengthy and produced a sound plan. It was time to move forward, she said, adding the council can make adjustments to the budget throughout the year.

Normal water bills going up

Water customers in Normal will see a 2% increase in their water bills, beginning April 1. That translates to an annual increase of roughly $11 per average household, said Reece. For the town as a whole, it’ll bring in nearly $190,000 next year.

The council voted 4-3, to increase the rate, with members aligning on the same sides of the FY22 budget vote. Lorenz, Nord and Preston voted “no.”

Lorenz said she understands the water department needs to be funded.

“I’m trying to make a point, however, that we aren’t out of the woods yet,” she said , noting inflation is at a 40-year high. “Where’s the relief? Where’s the relief for the households?”

Normal is expected to increase the rates an additional 2% in upcoming years, too. But Monday’s vote only authorizes the FY22-23 increase.

“It’s intended to prevent a shortfall later,” noted Smith, adding the water department has to budget for pipe repairs in alignment with the town’s street resurfacing projects.

Solar, wind energy installations could see uniform rules

Also Monday, the council voted unanimously to begin a process that ultimately would standardize rules about solar and wind energy installations in Normal.

So far, the town has permitted roo -panels on individual homes and handled requests for freestanding installations — such as a solar array on the grounds of First Presbyterian Church — on a case-by-case basis.

But as more of those requests have turned up, town staff believe standardization would better serve the community, said Normal town planner Mercy Davison.

With Monday's vote, the Normal Planning Commission take the reins of drafting a policy, and then holding a public hearing, Reece said.

In other business, the council:

  • Recognized Normal Police Officer Cory Phillips as officer of the year. Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner presented Phillips with a plaque at the meeting.
  • Approved a $40,000 contract with Gateway Pyrotechnics Productions, for this summer’s Fourth of July fireworks.

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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