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State Lawmakers Talk Bloomington Capital Projects Funding

Officials at a meeting
Breanna Grow
BloomingtonCity Manager Tim Gleason; State Rep. Keith Sommer, R-Morton; Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington; and council member Jamie Mathy during a Bloomington City Council special session Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020.

State lawmakers joined a special session of the Bloomington City Council on Saturday morning to discuss progress on securing state funding for the city’s capital projects.

Attending the session were Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington; Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington; Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington; and Rep. Keith Sommer, R-Morton.

The city currently has four requests for state funding for capital projects: the Hamilton Road extension project; renovations at O’Neil Pool; a possible joint project with local government agencies to build an emergency operations center; and a $3.5 million ask for various downtown development projects.

Sen. Brady said there may not be enough money in the upcoming state budget for all of the city’s capital projects.

“We have to balance the interests of the capital improvements throughout the state with our own districts, and we have forwarded these allocations on to the governor’s office,” he said. “We will be continuing to advocate and move forward.”

Rep. Brady noted the state has not had a capital bill in over a decade.

“The needs are great, the requests are many,” he said. 

Sen. Brady said there are funds set aside for the Hamilton Road project in the Illinois Department of Transportation’s annual appropriations. City Manager Tim Gleason noted the passage of the state’s 19-cent-per-gallon motor fuel tax increase will bring additional funds to the project. City staff expect construction to begin next spring. 

Gleason was also confident the city could secure funding for the much-needed redevelopment of O’Neil Pool.

“It has to happen,” he said. “The elected officials make it very clear that’s a priority, that’s a need on the west side, and in some fashion you are going to see the rebuilding of O’Neil Pool in the next couple of years.”

What shape that rebuild takes—potentially becoming a larger project like an aquatics park, for example—remains to be seen, he said. “But at the very least in a few years that pool will be rebuilt.”

An emergency operations center is still an idea in preliminary discussions and as yet unfunded, Gleason said. He said the city is exploring working with the Town of Normal and McLean County to invest in a center that could serve the broader community, not just Bloomington. 

Council members had other questions of and suggestions for the state officials as they look toward the remainder of the spring legislative session.

Council member Jeff Crabill asked for legislators’ thoughts on newly-signed legislation to consolidate police and fire pension funds.

Rep. Brady said he understands the change has the potential to significantly impact Bloomington’s funding portfolio.

Gleason said the city is waiting to see what happens as the law goes into effect, but “if they lessen the amount that we’re required to fund as a mandate, that might provide opportunities for us to take some of that revenue that was funding 100% currently, and we might be able to do other projects in the city.”

Crabill also asked what’s next in the state’s implementation of legal recreational cannabis.

Barickman said after generous public discussion of two of the states’ five new cannabis-related business licenses—cultivators and dispensers—implementation of the other three licenses will begin later this year as the state publishes rules and applications.

“While I anticipate that the state will make clarifications to the existing law, I don’t anticipate that there’s going to be any significant changes in the short-term,” he said, adding that he expects existing discussions about public consumption of cannabis to continue.

Sommer said now that the “euphoria” of initial sales has worn off, he expects the state will find its original revenue projections to be off.

“The state has a history of overestimating our revenues and underestimating our expenses,” he said. “Then we’ll get back to the conversation of, what are the offshoots from cannabis in our communities.”

Council member Julie Emig told the legislators she’s looking for ways to support expansion of the Bloomington Public Library as its circulation and program attendance continue to grow. 

She also wondered if the officials could confirm local expectations that McLean County’s poverty rate is expected to rise “significantly” after the upcoming census, and what could be done to address poverty at the state level.

Sen. Brady said he’s been disappointed in Gov. JB Pritzker’s task force on property tax relief, and that the governor’s administration needs to do more to increase employment. He called the state’s infrastructure program a “great first step,” one that needs followed up with “pro-business policies” and “even greater revenues toward education funding.”

Sommer agreed: “We may get job opportunities, but if we don’t have people who are educated enough to fill those job opportunities, which we’ve seen on many occasions, then they go elsewhere.”

Rep. Brady said supporters of the recent increase in the state’s minimum wage claim the change will help address poverty statewide, though he said whether the increase won’t be a detriment to businesses in the long-term remains to be seen.

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.