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Rural mayors slam CIRA tax plan, urge the McLean County Board to oppose it

Lexington Mayor Spencer Johansen urged the McLean County Board to adopt a resolution opposing the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority's tax proposal.
Eric Stock
Lexington Mayor Spencer Johansen urged the McLean County Board on Thursday to adopt a resolution opposing the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority's tax proposal.

Three rural mayors and an advocate for McLean County farmers urged the county board on Thursday to formally oppose the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority’s request to expand its tax base beyond Bloomington-Normal to the rest of the county.

During its monthly meeting, the county board also approved a new labor agreement for corrections officers and OK'd recruitment incentives to help the understaffed jail.

The board also split along party lines on a measure that would have required less time for the public to request to speak before the board.

Airport authority

Lexington Mayor Spencer Johansen, who chairs the McLean County Mayors Association, told the county board he only became aware of the Central Illinois Regional Airport’s tax proposal a month ago, and that no one from the airport has reached out to any of the county’s 19 rural mayors.

“In a world where we want transparency, in my opinion there has been absolutely none on this bill,” Johansen said.

Alan Sender, chair of the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority that oversees CIRA, told WGLT he and CIRA director Carl Olson met with the rural mayors last week. Sender said the mayors indicated they were all aware of the proposal, which state Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, has introduced. The measure has been approved in the Illinois Senate and awaits a vote in the House.

“This legislation has been a priority for the airport for almost a decade, ever since the federal government, during sequestration, threatened to end funding for our control tower,” Sender said via email.

Sender told the county board’s executive committee on Monday the authority is looking to expand its tax base to prepare for emergencies, but it has no plans to increase the levy. The levy would lead to lower property tax bills for Bloomington-Normal residents by $28 on average, while it would increase $55 on average for the rest of the county.

Carlock Mayor Rhonda Baer told the county board that Bloomington-Normal is better positioned to handle an economic catastrophe than rural communities, citing Unit 5’s recent threat to close its grade school in Carlock. She said the additional airport tax would rob smaller communities and taxing bodies of their ability to fund roads, water, emergency services, libraries and schools.

“We know if or when we are in real need for a tax increase, we better be able to honestly tell our constituents why. Can CIRA honestly tell us the same about this tax increase? We don’t think so,” Baer said.

Bellflower Mayor Allen Grussing said his community in far southeastern McLean County does not see economic benefit from the Twin City airport, noting the community has just three businesses, and no schools or hotels.

“Any revenue that would be coming in through the airport is not coming to Bellflower,” said Grussing, adding many of his residents fly out of airports in Chicago, Indianapolis, Champaign and Peoria because their flight schedules are more convenient.

Anna Ziegler, assistant manager for the McLean County Farm Bureau, also explained the bureau’s opposition to the tax plan, noting farmers would pay an additional $61 for every 100 acres of farmland. She said farmers already are paying more in property taxes, as taxable land values for farmland increased 67% — from $274 million in 2011 to $459 million in 2021.

“The number of acres has not increased, so that means the farm property owners are paying significantly higher property taxes even before we talk about any rate increases,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler also called the airport’s plan to seek the tax shift through legislation, rather than a referendum, an attempt to “circumvent” the voters.

The county board’s executive committee drafted a resolution to formally oppose the tax plan on Monday, but postponed a vote until its June meeting.

Jailers contract

The county board unanimously approved a new collective bargaining agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 176 that represents corrections officers at the jail.

The contract offers pay-step increases between 3-5% annually from 2021 to 2025. (The last contract expired in December 2020). The deal also includes a $1,500 retention bonus for officers who are employed for the full five years of the agreement.

The county board also approved a recruiting incentive that enables corrections officers to receive $500 for recruiting a new officer and up to $1,500 if that new corrections officer completes a one-year probationary period. New corrections officer hires this year are due to receive a $2,000 bonus after completing their probationary period.

After the meeting, Sheriff Matt Lane said the contract sets starting pay for new corrections officers at just over $50,000, which he said is very competitive with similar-size counties.

He said the McLean County Jail is still 24 corrections officers short, and while he recently hired six new officers, it will take up to three months for them to be trained. The jail is currently housing 50-60 of its inmates daily at the LaSalle County Jail, at a cost of up to $2,700 per day to the county, because of a shortage of corrections staff.

“We are trying to keep it as low a number (of inmates) as we can to save money, to make sure we take care of our business and also give our people a break so they can get some sleep at night and spend a little time with family between shifts,” Lane said.

The county board approved the sheriff’s office use of part-time corrections officers to help cover shifts the department is unable to cover. Lane said this would be the first time the jail would hire part-time staff, and the hourly rate has not yet been set. They would not have union representation, though Lane said that could change over time.

“It will help take from heat and some extra hours off of their people,” said Lane, adding union staff will get first dibs on shift openings.

Rules change denied

The board’s 10 Democrats voted for, and 10 Republicans voted against, reducing the notice requirement to 24 hours to request to speak before the board on an issue that’s not listed on that meeting’s agenda.

The current requirement is two business days for non-agenda items. The requirement for agenda items will remain 24 hours.

Republican Chuck Erickson said the current rules were intended to maintain decorum and to direct the public, when appropriate, to the board committee that is handling their concern.

“There’s no need to change this, but I do want to point out that this rule has nothing sinister in it and there’s no intent to play political games with it,” Erickson said.

Democrat Lea Cline said she supports the plan because it allows for greater public access.

“People work, people have busy lives, to expect that people are paying such close attention to what’s happening at the county to figure out what they need to come and request an opportunity to speak two business days before a meeting is asking a lot of the community,” Cline said.

Democrat Elizabeth Johnston said county staff told her 24 hours was sufficient notice for them to direct people to the proper place to address their concerns.

The measure advanced to the full board after the executive committee approved it 5-3 on Monday. Republican Catherine Metsker, who voted for the proposal on Monday, voted against the measure on Thursday. She declined to speak to a WGLT reporter after the meeting.

Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.