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Normal's financial outlook remains on positive path after pandemic recovery

Normal Finance Director Andrew Huhn addresses the Normal Town Council on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, at Uptown Station.
Michele Steinbacher
Normal Finance Director Andrew Huhn addresses the Normal Town Council on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, at Uptown Station.

Normal’s finance chief says the town continues to experience strong economic growth on the heels of the previous year’s pandemic recovery.

“Last year, it was a good report. This year, it is even better,” Normal Finance Director Andrew Huhn told the Normal Town Council on Monday.

The town fund balances are near $79 million, with current assets at more than $108 million and current liabilities at just under $30 million.

“We’re seeing real strong, stable revenue sources continue to grow,” he said.

Meanwhile, the town’s expenses remain in line with the budget, keeping the balances positive. “The town’s in a very good fiscal position, as we typically are,” said Huhn, whose comments came as part of an annual financial conditions report presented each September.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council voted to keep using automatic license plate reader (ALPR) cameras in its policing; to modernize payment systems for Uptown’s three parking decks; and to hire a local firm to facilitate a sustainability-focused update of Vision 2050, the town’s long-term plan.

Financial report encapsulates past year

This year’s financial conditions report “serves as a real nice wrap-up to our fiscal year end, a real good information-based session for the council about where the economy is at for the town, and also a preamble for the budget process that we’re coming into right now,” Huhn said.

This fall, departments will work with staff to develop a plan. In January, the council has a work session and digs into that proposed FY 24-25 budget. It’s tweaked, and then adopted in March.

The FY 22-23 financial trends report, discussed Monday, reviews about three dozen indicators covering community factors, revenue and expenditures, debt service, fund balances, and financial strategies.

The report will be posted on the town’s website Tuesday afternoon, Huhn said.

Topics assessed include the real estate arena, such as assessed value of property, construction permits, and average home sale prices, as well as workforce and unemployment numbers, and data on local rail and air travel.

Workforce growth, coupled with a housing shortage, has triggered growth in equalized assessed value (EAV) of residential property. But the town’s also seen higher value in commercial and industrial property value, Huhn told the council.

Historically, the town plans for a 1% increase in EAV revenue. However, tax year 2021 saw a 2.5% bump; and 2022 came in 7.2% higher.

But get ready, Huhn said. The McLean County assessor’s early projections for 2023 suggest a whopping 21% increase in Normal’s EAV. That's just a preliminary number, and likely will be adjusted, he emphasized.

Huhn's report also included charts showing an increase in post-pandemic spending, combined with a growing workforce in Normal, has meant in increase to sales tax revenue, both local and state.

Separately, the council also heard a report Monday about the town’s latest audit, before voting unanimously to accept the audited financial statements. Jamie Wilkey of Lauterbach & Amen CPA Firm said that, as usual, the town received a clean audit, meaning all financial materials were in order.

“Overall, a positive year for the town,” Wilkey said.

NPD sticks with license plate reading cameras

The council OK’d a proposal from the Normal Police Department to award a nearly $360,000, five-year contract to Georgia-based Flock Safety.

The unanimous vote follows a one-year contract that served as a trial period for using the ALPR cameras.

Now, Normal will continue leasing more than two dozen ALPRs, and can purchase the ALPR data over the next five years. Police have said the camera’s data has proven useful in investigations.

The council waived the formal bidding process.

Vision 2050 revisits sustainability

The council voted for The Hile Group to facilitate the next update to the town’s long-term Vision 2050 plan, with a focus on sustainability.

Prior to the vote, council members Kathleen Lorenz and Chemberly Harris said they weren’t sure whether the vote was about a sustainability plan or the Vision 2050 plan.

But City Manager Pam Reece said the answer was both: It’s the town’s long-term vision plan, updated every five years, but with a sustainability focus. That was the case in 2010, as well, said Reece.

Lorenz asked what was meant by sustainability.

“My sense is it will be very broad based,” said Mayor Chris Koos, adding the group may want to look at that through the lens of a number of possibilities beyond the concept of environmental sustainability, such as economic development, transportation uses, or water use.

Hile, a Normal-based firm is authorized to be paid up to $87,000 for the work. That includes reviewing what the town has accomplished since the last sustainability-themed update in 2010. Over the next year, there will be public focus groups, connection with stakeholders, and a public survey.

The task force will work with Hile staff to draft a final plan to be presented to council for the 2025 outlook plus 25 years beyond, said Reece.

Staff have noted that in the decade since the sustainability focus, climate change has noticeably impacted communities, renewable energy technologies have advanced, and more grants in that area are available.

Raab and Linden’s Archer complex moves forward

Earlier this summer, the town gave the Archer apartment complex developers the go-ahead for their North Normal project near Constitution Trail. It will create a six-building site, with 136 units.

But on Monday, the council took several votes tied to moving along Ethos Design and Build’s plans for a 10-acre site at Raab Road and Linden Street.

Namely, the council annexed part of the land into the town, changed the zoning from agricultural to medium-density family residence, and approved a preliminary planned unit development for the project.

Normal modernizes parking decks pay option

The council also voted unanimously for town staff to spend up to $300,000 in transitioning to technologically up-to-date parking deck pay stations.

The switch uses app and mobile phone-based payment system, along with ALPR cameras to record the vehicles and the times they come in and leave. The app is Passport, used on the Illinois State University campus.

The town already uses the technology for on-street parking enforcement in Uptown. Staff said 70% of parking deck traffic is by permit holders.

This map shows proposed trails that would connect pathways to Chiddix Junior High School. Normal is applying for a grant that would fund the project.

In other business, the council:

  • OK’d a roughly $220,000 contract with Hoerr Construction for annual work on the street’s manholes. 
  • Pledged to cover $50,000 in engineering costs, if the town lands a $250,000 Illinois Department of Transportation grant. Normal's proposal for the Safe Routes to School grant would focus on improving ways for students to reach Chiddix Junior High School. That would be accomplished through a series of pathways to nearby neighborhoods.
  • Prior to the meeting, met with college students attending a civic engagement town/gown event in city hall. Many of the students also attended the council meeting that followed. 

WGLT senior reporter Charlie Schlenker contributed to this report.

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