In split vote, Bloomington council members approve 2nd cannabis dispensary
The Bloomington City Council on Monday approved the city’s second of two available permits for the sale of recreational cannabis.
Other notable agenda items included a resolution to create two new bus shelters on the Empire Street corridor, a collective bargaining agreement between the city and public safety dispatchers, an increased fine for “disorderly premises,” and the presentation of the fire department’s annual report.
Second cannabis dispensary
In a 5-to-3 vote, council members approved a permit for the city’s second cannabis dispensary. (There is one dispensary in Normal, meaning Bloomington-Normal would now have three total.)
Council members Grant Walch, Sheila Montney and Nick Becker voted to not grant the permit.
The Delaware-incorporated Project Equity Illinois Inc., a group of six cannabis entrepreneurs, purchased the vacant 13,000-square-foot retail space at 1006 JC Parkway on Bloomington’s far west side, where they will operate the dispensary and lease the remaining space to other businesses.
The group estimates their business will generate 20 jobs and $300,000 in tax revenue.
Walch cited safety concerns in his opposition to the permit, expecting there to be a large increase in foot traffic over nearby Interstate 55-74. Becker took issue on moral grounds.
“Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s good for the community long term. Just because it generates revenue doesn’t mean it’s good for the community long term,” Becker said.
Montney questioned the credibility of Project Equity Illinois, to the point that the council motioned to suspend regular session rules for 15 minutes to bring the company’s co-owner, Conor Johnston, back to the podium for questioning.
Montney appeared to suggest that company’s partners were misrepresenting themselves as local small business owners. Four of the six partners are from Illinois, Johnston said, but only one, majority owner John Rushing, currently resides in the state. The remainder are serial cannabis entrepreneurs who have started and sold businesses across multiple states where cannabis is legal.
Johnston additionally faced scrutiny on ethical grounds in his hometown of San Francisco when critics accused him of gaming the city’s cannabis permit system that favors people of color and victims of the War on Drugs, by using a person of color as the face of his business while also taking advantage of his close ties to the city’s mayor, London Breed. Johnston insisted that the accusations are unfounded.
In response to the opposition’s moral concerns, council members Donna Boelen and Julie Emig said the council had already adjudicated the moral arguments when they initially laid out the rules for cannabis dispensaries after Illinois legalized the drug, and because Project Equity Illinois met all the requirements, their permit should be approved.
Higher fines for disorderly premises
Meanwhile, Bloomington council members also approved increased fines for “disorderly premises.”
The current fine for rowdy houses is $100, and Bloomington Police say that a recent spate of large, boisterous gatherings has taken a significant toll on the department’s resources. They recommended the fine be increased to a $200 minimum and $600 maximum for a property owner’s first offense. Subsequent offenses will carry a $300 minimum and $1,000 maximum fine.
All items on the council’s regular agenda passed, including:
A resolution to approve a bus shelter and sidewalk project on IAA Drive, the frontage road at the northwest corner of the intersection of Empire Street and Veterans Parkway. There are existing bus stops at the location, but they are uncovered and there is no paved pedestrian access to adjacent shopping centers. The project is estimated to cost no more than $135,000 to be paid by Connect Transit which will be able to be reimbursed through the Empire Street Corridor TIF under this new resolution. The project is estimated to be completed in fall of this year.
Approval of the collective bargaining agreement between the city and public safety dispatchers that includes a yearly pay increase of 3.5% across the board for the next three years. The contract also includes a $750 signing bonus to attract new hires and an expedited salary increase structure intended to keep new hires around for longer in a high-stress occupation that benefits from having experienced operators. The new contract will cost the city an additional $128,000 over the next three years.
Twin resolutions to address Emig’s conflict of interest in the approval of an energy efficiency program during a previous session. The previous vote approved a payment of $152,000 to the Ecology Action Center, where Emig sits on the board. Item C on Monday’s agenda repealed the agreement, after which time Emig recused from the vote to reinstate it.
Fire department’s annual report
The council also heard Bloomington Fire Chief Eric West’s report for 2021.
The fire department responded to nearly 13,000 calls last year, up about 1,400 from 2020, and the fire department arrived on scene in 5 minutes and 20 seconds, on average. West said that last year’s winter ice storm and summer flooding accounted for a large proportion of the increase in calls, but that calls were up even if those events were excluded.
Bloomington Fire responded to 221 fires that caused $4.3 million in damage, 12 injuries and one fatality; 75% of calls fielded were EMS calls rather than fires. The most common EMS calls requiring medical attention were for people with behavioral and psychiatric disorders — totaling 863 calls. West said 98% of sworn firefighters are EMS-certified, and many are paramedics.
A contingent of the fire department also is hazmat trained, and they responded to six hazmat incidents last year, mostly chemical spills from highway accidents. One of BFD's new materiel acquisitions, a thermal camera-equipped drone, played a critical role in bringing one of these incidents under control.
“Our pilot was able to fly into the back of a trailer to determine what was leaking on it, so that was pretty cool,” West said.
West said Bloomington Fire has been understaffed for “eight or nine years,” and that last year the department received only 24 applications.
“At some point, we may have to change our requirements for hiring,” he said.