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Sen. Koehler's bill revives CIRA's long-sought countywide expansion of tax base

CIRA signage

A plan to expand the property-tax base for the Central Illinois Regional Airport – from Bloomington and Normal city limits to the entire county – has resurfaced in a new bill in Springfield. It’s drawing early opposition from the head of a group of small-town McLean County mayors.

State Sen. Dave Koehler, a Democrat who represents parts of Bloomington-Normal, introduced the bill last month. It hasn’t received a vote yet. It would “expand the corporate limits of the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority to all of McLean County” and allow at-large members to be appointed to the Airport Authority’s seven-member board from anywhere within McLean County.

If lawmakers approve and it’s signed into law, the bill would be expected to spread the airport’s tax burden across more of McLean County. That would theoretically mean lower taxes for property owners in Bloomington-Normal but higher taxes for those in rural parts of the county. Specifics are not yet available. A spokesperson for CIRA said Friday that airport officials would not do interviews on the topic until the bill begins to move through the legislative process in Springfield.

CIRA leaders have unsuccessfully sought this change for years. In 2018, airport director Carl Olson told a Lee Enterprises reporter that “this isn't about generating more revenue. This is about contingency planning, competitive positioning and moving forward in a stronger fashion.”

Koehler said CIRA reached out to him with the idea. He said it’s very similar to a measure he sponsored in 2007 to expand the tax base of Peoria County’s airport authority. Koehler said the Bloomington-Normal airport is an important driver of the local economy and that a wider tax base ensures stability in the future.

“The burden shouldn’t fall on just one group of people. Since it is a regional airport, the desire was to have everybody share in that. And it would help, I think, to keep the lid on that tax from going up,” Koehler said.

Property taxes make up only a portion of the airport’s overall budget. And the airport’s tax rate makes up a small portion of a homeowner’s overall property tax bill, relative to local school districts and city governments. The owner of a $180,000 home in Bloomington-Normal last year, for example, would have paid around $85 in taxes to the airport.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said the Airport Authority has not formally brought the idea to town leaders this time around, although he said it’s been discussed in years past.

“It makes the airport more competitive with the regional airports nearby. They have a larger taxing base than we do. The dollars they generate from their tax bases is significantly larger than we do,” Koos said.

WGLT asked if the change would lower taxes for residents in Normal.

“It will do that initially,” Koos said. “For how long, I can’t say.”

The McLean County Mayors Association is aware of the bill, said chair Spencer Johansen, who is also the mayor of Lexington. Johansen said earlier this week that no one from the airport had reached to him about it.

“They’ve kept it kind of quiet,” Johansen said. He said they’ve invited Koehler and Olson to the group’s March 30 meeting.

Johansen said the Lexington City Council is likely to consider passage of a resolution opposing the bill, as it did the last time the idea surfaced.

“I just don’t understand the rationale behind it,” Johansen said. “At one point, you’ll hear them say, ‘Well, everybody in McLean County uses the airport. So everybody should be taxed for it.’ But how many people outside of McLean County use that airport? Where do we stop? If people living in Lincoln, Illinois, drive to Bloomington-Normal’s airport to fly out, are they taxed? So I’ve got a lot of issues with it, and I think the rest of the mayors do too.”

Johansen noted that his community is not anti-tax in all cases. Lexington voters just approved a sales tax increase in November, although that’s a tax paid by local residents and visitors alike.

“If you’re honest with the voters, and they know what the money is going for, I think it’s an easier sell,” he said. “The key to our success was, we were upfront with the citizens and told them why we needed the increase. It was to offset the high utility costs of our water plant and sewer plant.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
I'm currently a Junior at Augustana College, working on a major in Multimedia Journalism and Mass Communication. In addition to interning at the station, I also work for the Augustana Observer, the college's official student newspaper, as the Arts and Entertainment Editor.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.