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Town of Normal staff to recommend municipal grocery sales tax

Normal City Manager Pam Reece
Charlie Schlenker
WGLT file
Normal City Manager Pam Reece said the $2.5 million per year the town gets from grocery taxes pays for valuable infrastructure projects.

The state sales tax on groceries will soon go away, under a plan proposed by Gov. JB Pritzker, but shoppers at grocery stores in the Town of Normal might not see any reduction.

City Manager Pam Reece said the $2.5 million per year the town gets from grocery taxes pays for valuable infrastructure projects.

"My recommendation to the town council will be to consider a local grocery tax," Reece said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Reece said that would be a solution that would keep the status quo once the state tax on groceries ends in 2026. She said it's preferable to other ways of dealing with the shortage, such as increasing fees or taxes elsewhere or cutting projects. She said the town has a good history of spending money efficiently.

The 1% grocery tax amounts to a dollar for every $100 someone spends at the grocery store. Pritzker says that may not seem like much, but it is for families that need tax relief the most. He said the tax is regressive.

Reece said she did not have an answer to the question of whether there is a less regressive potential revenue stream available to the town to make up for the loss, though the town council will have that public discussion.

Reece said she has yet to have conversations with council members about the policy choices though staff have briefed Mayor Chris Koos.

Housing shortage

The City of Bloomington hopes to have the city council give direction by the end of the month on programs to reduce the housing shortage. The timeline for the Town of Normal is less aggressive. Reece said the town took part in Bloomington's recent housing symposium. She said most of the ideas that emerged deserve review.

"Discussions still have to take place in terms of developers. What are their gaps? Why are they unable to get projects done and how can we as a public-private partnership get these projects to the finish line?" said Reece.

Reece noted the town already was vetting some proposals before the symposium, such as interest rate buy-downs and other ways of becoming part of a developers' financing.

"What does the municipality have to do to maybe backstop some of the lending arrangements?" said Reece.

Reece, like Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe, is less certain how a property tax assessment freeze would work for school districts. And she pointed out there may be no single answer to address the housing shortage because the community needs all sorts of housing — from helping unhoused people get shelter, to workforce housing, and even market rate housing.

"We've got to figure out probably development by development what makes more sense for each," she said.

Reece said lower hanging fruit could be things like the town absorbing the cost of extending infrastructure such as water and sewer to a project site. Traditionally, developers have borne that cost.

Homeless encampment

The tent encampment of unhoused people in downtown Bloomington is not the only one in the community. Reece confirmed there is another one along Sugar Creek west of southbound Main Street near AutoZone.

"We're working with Bloomington and others to navigate those waters and try to find solutions that would also hopefully address the one [encampment] that people are noticing in the center part of town," said Reece.

The encampment has not caused problems for the rest of the community, but it is a matter of concern, she said.

Sculpture garden

Recently, the town council agreed to spend $63,000 to have a firm design a master plan for a sculpture park in One Normal Plaza on the circle by the south entrance to the community center.

“There’s some lovely greenspace there that has a piece of artwork in it. It’s ripe for more public investment, some art, some sculpture. We have targeted that space for our first investment in public sculpture,” said Reece.

The money is solely for the design of the sculpture garden. How to fill it comes later.

“Then we’re working with a public art working group led by our cultural arts team and the McLean County Arts Center to advise us and inform us on ways to effectively acquire, rent, and procure the actual pieces for the space,” said Reece.

That working group also includes art experts from Illinois State University and Heartland Community College as well as community philanthropists, she said.

The sculpture itself would not come until late in 2025. Town staff previously have noted it may be desirable to lease some of the sculpture and keep the installation fresh by allowing pieces to rotate in and out. Planning for new public art investment in the community began during the pandemic.

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