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Normal to explore placing solar arrays atop parking decks

An exterior view of a parking deck in Uptown
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
Other reasons to look at parking deck structural integrity include simple good management of the facilities and to gauge whether the decks can handle the growing numbers of heavier-than-average electric vehicles as EV use penetrates the traveling culture.

There are several reasons why the Town of Normal will pay for a study of how sturdy its three parking decks are. One of them is to see if the roofs will bear the weight if solar arrays are installed on the decks.

"This is all just an attempt to be visionary of what we could do in taking advantage of solar. We have nothing preconceived, whether it would be an entire deck covered with solar arrays or partial coverage or what," said City Manager Pam Reece.

Other reasons to look at parking deck structural integrity include simple good management of the facilities and to gauge whether the decks can handle the growing numbers of heavier-than-average electric vehicles as EV use penetrates the traveling culture.

Eventually, Reece said the town also will study whether to put solar farms over surface parking lots as well.

“And maybe those are some areas where we can look at some solar installations, again, to generate some additional energy resources,” Reece said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

She said a number of municipalities are moving into that area and the town must do research to decide whether it fits Normal.

Interchange City West

On Monday, the town council agreed to wave a preliminary plan for a 200-acre west side development called Interchange City West so the developer can meet a grant deadline to install some infrastructure, water and sewer work.

Reece downplayed the chance the unusual procedure could result in something won't be fully vetted by the town or could conflict with existing regulations

“I believe the risk is pretty small … the developer can take advantage of the state grant and then come back to the town in the future with a preliminary plan which would show how the individual parcels will be laid out ... prior to installing the road network or any water or sewer infrastructure. It does require town staff approval. We do have some checks and balances in place that the water system and the road network should accommodate the future preliminary plan,” said Reece.

The 200 acres is zoned B-1, a comprehensive business category.

“We believe this really sets up the west side of Normal and this individual developer, to get his property ready for multi-purpose business use. We'll be eager to see how that how that develops in the plan that he's able to put together,” said Reece.

The community has the old General Electric plant in Bloomington available for business development. There also has been talk of creating an industrial park. Interchange City West could expand the options for prospective businesses.

“Anecdotally, we hear stories of needs for logistics and warehousing space. We're hopeful that the developer and the property owner in this instance, Interchange City West, can best position themselves to get their site developed,” said Reece.

Benefits package

The town will now offer a sweeter benefits package to its employees, after council action on Monday. Reece said it boils down to finding and keeping workers, adding the town was not keeping up with the Joneses.

"We were short in a few areas," said Reece.

One of them is vacation time. Workers received a third week of vacation starting their seventh year in a job and a fourth week in year 13.

 “We found that those are kind of peculiar dates to recognize your length of service and get an additional week of vacation. Now, you'll get an additional week of vacation at year five, and after year 10, which seems to be more typical,” said Reece.

There also will now be four weeks of paid parental leave (at 70% pay) upon the birth or adoption of a child, which takes effect after two weeks of personal time off.

“This is maybe where the public sector perhaps is outpaced by the private sector a little bit,” said Reece.

Beyond the six-week period, workers are back on their own accrued leave time.

“I think this is kind of dipping our toes into the water of a parental leave program. I think it's a good start,” said Reece.

She noted even 70% pay will make a significant difference for new parents because they tend to be earlier in their careers, and so earn less than more senior employees.

Another issue is town-observed holidays.

"The town has recognized nine paid days off. A number of municipalities were 10, 11, and sometimes even 12 paid holidays," said Reece.

She said Juneteenth and Veterans Day will be added to the list of town holidays.

“Frankly, I think it allows us to recognize those individual days as special,” said Reece.

The town also is easing a decades-old residency requirement that staff must live within 20 miles of the center of town. The limit is now 60 miles. Reece said that will expand the pool of job applicants who may not want to move to Normal because of the housing shortage.

 “It's not out of the ordinary for someone to drive an hour or so to work. So with a 60-mile radius, we can recruit from Champaign, Decatur, Peoria, and Springfield, and all the areas elsewhere in that district. That really makes us feel very, very positive about our recruitment pool moving forward. So that's a major major change,” said Reece.

On the flip side, a number of cities and towns have done away with all residency requirements for all staff.

"I don't think we're there. I don't think we need to get to that point," said Reece.

The residency change does not affect unionized workers, fire and police. Reece said the town administration will talk with police officers and firefighters who have publicly pushed for a change.

"There have been occasions where public safety personnel have come to the end of the probationary period and decided it wasn't right for them to move into our corporate boundaries and they've been recruited elsewhere, and we've lost them," said Reece.

Probation follows sometimes lengthy training periods at fire and police academies. She held off on saying the limit will change because bargaining unit contracts expire next spring and negotiations have not yet begun.

Another change is the removal of a half-century old policy affecting eight of the 16 department heads that required them to live inside the corporate boundaries of the town. Historically, city managers have granted exceptions in some cases.

“To have a policy that says you must reside here, unless the city manager tells you don't have to, is peculiar, a little bit strange to enforce,” said Reece. “Those positions require them to be available almost at any time. They are reachable 24/7. They will be here if they need to be here.”

She said such residency requirements for department heads are now unusual for municipalities.

The overall cost of the changes to holidays, parental leave, and vacation could be about $250,000. Reece said that's small compared to the entire personnel cost for the town.

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