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Two blocs of Normal Town Council candidates have two very different visions

Normal Town Council candidates, clockwise from top left, Kathleen Lorenz, Karyn Smith, Andy Byars, Karl Sila, Marc Tiritilli, and Stan Nord.
Normal Town Council candidates, clockwise from top left, Kathleen Lorenz, Karyn Smith, Andy Byars, Karl Sila, Marc Tiritilli, and Stan Nord.

The Normal Town Council election next month might sound a lot like the election in 2021, or the one in 2019, or even the one in 2017. The issues are similar and some of the faces are the same.

There are six candidates for three spots on the town council. Five out of those six have run before, though not just for council. Three people — Marc Tiritilli, Karl Sila, and Stan Nord — say they don't like the direction the town is going. Sila said the biggest problem facing the town is "the one that's on the ballot."

“People need to decide. It's not so much who will represent them, but if they're represented at all. There are three candidates who work for ‘the plan’ and try to avoid public input. And there are three candidates who work for the people and to the extent that includes the plan, great. To the extent that it doesn't, they'll push back,” said Sila.

Sila is fighting some old battles. He said he is against tearing down the mural in Uptown. It won’t be torn down. He doesn't like the town renting space in One Uptown at what he says is too high a price. Others say it's market rate. Sila objects to the way the town disposed of property for a low price to promote Uptown development. And he says he's against incentives for Trail East and West. Supporters of those agreements have long said the incentives were necessary to attract development. Most of those are settled issues, but Sila said they are still relevant.

“It's kind of like with financial investments. Past performance doesn't always indicate what future performance will be. But it’s a very good indicator,” said Sila.

Marc Tiritilli didn't respond to requests for an interview. Stan Nord declined to sit down with WGLT, saying he has not liked previous coverage of him.

Incumbent council member Kathleen Lorenz said she disagrees with the three who are questioning the direction of the town. Newcomer Andy Byars, who sits on the town planning commission, and Lorenz said things are actually going pretty well, and the biggest challenges facing the town are the ones that come with managing growth: encouraging new housing construction and absorbing new people who move in. It's a starkly different picture than the one painted by Sila, Nord and Tiritilli.

Incumbent council member Karyn Smith ran with Nord four years ago, but has since distanced herself from his complaints. Smith said she thinks that behind all the back-and-forth is the issue of change and the uncertainty it brings.

“It's manifesting itself in other types of complaints. But at its core, I really believe it's just the anxiety over something new. It just is an indication that what they have known and grown comfortable with is changing,” said Smith.

Smith urged Nord, Tiritilli, and Sila to listen better to the evidence that the town is doing just fine.

“It frustrates me that there is a stoking of concerns about what the town is doing and why it's doing it. And it’s raising the level of suspicion, I think, needlessly,” said Smith.

Smith said town staff are highly professional and experienced. She said the average tenure of a staffer is 17.5 years, and if they weren't doing a good job they wouldn't have stayed, or been allowed to stay. Smith said that experience provides a wealth of institutional knowledge about how to accomplish things once the council sets policy and focus.

“And if we look clearly at what is being accomplished, I don't see why there is that suspicion about the town not doing well,” said Smith.

Smith and Lorenz also pushed back against Sila’s allegation that most current council members don't listen to the public. They said they pay a lot of attention to constituents. And what voters have told them when they knock on doors for the campaign is that they think things are going well. Lorenz said one recent example of the council listening is the council nudged developers to meet with neighbors about traffic and potential school crowding from an infill development.

“Really just trying to be a conduit of communication for the neighbors, and to help them through the process, understand the process of site planning, the planning commission, meeting with developers, getting an understanding of what's being planned, why, and just really listening,” said Lorenz.

Sila is having none of it. He said the council members that supported Uptown projects spent money on nice-to-haves instead of needs.

“Look at the debt. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts are supposed to play games with the real estate taxes. And sometimes that can be a net positive. Usually, it's not. And this is one of those cases,” he said.

Sila said those who point to the increased land values in Uptown ignore potential development that might have happened without the public debt. Uptown supporters have long said the development was not going to happen at all without government incentives.

Planning commission member and council candidate Andy Byars disagreed with Sila.

“There was a lot of investment made in Uptown Normal. I think that investment has produced a really valuable asset for our community. And now we're seeing that, hey, we were able to make an investment in a big project like that. But then we're also able to now pay the bill,” said Byars.

How much debt to carry

The two sides also differ on what is a healthy debt.

“There's a good story to tell on the fiscal side of the Town of Normal. Going back five or six years ago, that debt had reached pretty close to $100 million, about $95 million or so. And since then, we've had some some big debt payments. We've seen that debt go down,” said Byars.

Town figures show the current debt at the end of this month will be about $71 million. In a year, it's scheduled to be about $67 million, and more than a third of the debt-service payments comes from increases in property values thrown off by the Tax Increment Financing district.

“As we march towards the sunsetting of the TIF district for Uptown, which will be in the 2027-2028 timeframe, we will be able to and we have a path to pay that debt down significantly, so that by the time we get past the TIF, we've got a reasonable mortgage payment,” said Lorenz.

The projected debt at the end of the TIF is about $48 million, according to town data. Lorenz said the debt service was never more than 5-7% of town revenue, which compares very favorably to home mortgages.

Sila said a home mortgage is not the right comparison because homeowners are limited by time. They have only so long in a working life in which to save and pay off the mortgage.

“The Town of Normal doesn't have that 60-70-90, whatever-year time frame that you and I are limited to. Therefore they have the luxury of saving up and paying cash even if it takes an extra 10-20, maybe even 50 years depending on what the item is,” said Sila.

Uptown supporters flip that script. Karyn Smith said the lack of a time limit means as long as the community is healthy, there is no reason to wait for improvements the council finds are needed because the revenue stream does not depend on any one payer. She said public investment has leveraged hundreds of millions of additional private dollars in investment that is on, or will come on, the property tax rolls.

“And if you also considered what has happened to Normal as a result of that debt, the revitalized Uptown area, we have gotten value for the money that has been spent,” said Smith.

The Tiritilli-Nord-Sila camp say instead of Uptown, the Town of Normal should have spent more money on road repairs. Byars, though, said roads and economic development are not mutually exclusive.

“What we're seeing now is that economic development goes hand in hand with having new revenue coming in, which allows you to invest more in infrastructure and roads and bridges, etc.,” said Byars.

Road repairs

Byars, Lorenz and Smith all point to spending on roads doubling over the next five years. Karl, Sila said it's still not enough.

“Where we're at now, according to that study they did recently, is enough to keep us at break even. Given that a lot of people complain that we have too many potholes and so on, we need to spend about twice as much as we are,” said Sila.

Sila said that study suggests the town underfunded road repairs for the last two decades. Pinning that judgment on the new study though may not be entirely fair. Lorenz said it’s knowledge previous planners could not have had because the study is only now possible with new scanning technology.

“It determined what's going on beneath the surface. We've never been able to do that before. We'd always done just more of a surface and visibility check, which has served us well. But it, in fact, shows what's lurking beneath the surface and is showing evidence we need to up our game. And so, we are,” said Lorenz.

Lorenz said next year, town spending will increase in the roadway fund by $11 million and the total will double over the five-year outlook.

All the candidates also have smaller picture issues they want to pay attention to if voters elect them.

Byars said he wants to work on community engagement and being a leader who is present, adding he wants to try to unite people across the town. Sila said transparency is important and is an attitude as well as a process. Lorenz said she wants to be as responsive and attentive to small businesses as she is with individual constituents and will do more outreach to that sector.

None of the four candidates who participated in this story committed firmly to any particular policy on placing or limiting recreational marijuana stores within the town, although they said they do support the current ordinance that tends to push such outlets toward the edges of the town.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.