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Normal Water Rate Increase Pushed Back Again

Normal council meeting
The Normal City Council Monday night delayed a planned water rate hike for another three months.

While Normal residents will start seeing higher utility bills next month, a planned water rate increase has been delayed another three months.

After narrowly adopting an amendment proposed by Karyn Smith, the town council voted unanimously Monday night in favor of an ordinance implementing the previously approved water, sewer and waste collection fees. Smith’s amendment pushed the water fee increase to Oct. 1, while the other fee hikes will take effect July 1.

“The revenue that’s generated through the user fees, which applies to consumption, is what supports the entire water operation and sewer operation. That includes not only their operating expenses, but also their capital investment,” said City Manager Pam Reece, who noted the town has made close to $18.5 million worth of infrastructure improvements to the water system since 2015.  

The council originally approved a 2% water rate increase in March that was supposed to take effect at the start of the fiscal year on April 1. But that increase was subsequently delayed amid the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as were additional sewer, waste and maintenance fee increases.

Council member Stan Nord said he was unable to “wrap my head around” raising rates and fees with the economy still reeling from the pandemic.

“I think this is just the wrong time, and I absolutely do not see a need for it,” said Nord, who proposed a second amendment to delay the sewer rate increase three months as well. After that proposal failed, he voted in favor of the amended ordinance so the increases would not take effect retroactively.  

After the remaining council members noted the increases already had been approved and it was not the time to re-legislate the matter, Smith offered her amendment as a compromise.

The town has projected a total revenue loss of $258,000 from the three-month delay, with $48,000 of that in the water fund. The additional three-month postponement could result in another $48,000 reduction.

The sewer fee increases from $2.44 to $2.65 per 1,000 gallons while a waste service fee changes from $26 to $30 per month and a monthly system maintenance fee goes from $5.99 to $6.11. The water rate fee will change from $6.57 to $6.70 per 1,000 gallons when it goes into effect.

The revenue from the waste fee impacts the town’s general fund. Reece said the town is projecting the general fund will absorb a $10 million hit from COVID.

One Normal Plaza

In a prepared statement regarding a recent neighborhood meeting on a possible development at One Normal Plaza, Nord said elected officials “need to be better listeners” and suggested political bias has established barriers to communication between residents and town officials and representatives.

“Various groups and individuals in our community have long stated they have no voice in Normal’s government, which I contend is a valid and accurate complaint,” he said, claiming staff and council members were discouraged from attending the neighborhood meeting.

“At a time in our country when there is so much unrest that people have no voice in government, we need to involve our citizens more now than ever, instead of finding ways to discredit their concern or discourage their inclusion with representatives,”  Nord said.

Chemberly Cummings and Kathleen Lorenz, who both live in the vicinity of One Normal Plaza but were not invited to the neighborhood meeting, took issue with Nord’s claim that council members are not paying attention to constituents.

“I’m highly offended that you sit here as the ‘savior of Normal’ to say that no one else (listens),” said Cummings. “Whether people choose to include me or not, that is their choice. But I am always open, not only with staff or any other council members, to have a conversation with anyone.”

Lorenz added that Nord’s statement was full of subjectivity and opinion, “does nothing but cause division” and countered any suggestion that Reece obstructs communication.

“She is extremely professional as a city manager, and any accusations that would suggest that she would be a barrier in any way to council members communicating with citizens is categorically wrong,” said Lorenz.

Reece added that “staff is always willing to participate in neighborhood meetings whenever we are invited.”

Hazardous waste collection

The council also approved a new three-year intergovernmental agreement for household hazardous waste collection and removal that represents a budget savings of $6,400.

Bloomington, McLean County and the Ecology Action Center (EAC) remain partners in the agreement, with the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District (BNWRD) added. The pact expires at the end of 2023, with collection events to be held in the fall of 2021 and 2023.

The total annual cost for the program is $70,000, divided based on population, with Bloomington paying 45%, Normal 31% and the county 24%. With the BNWRD paying a flat rate of $10,000 each year, the other partners will split the remaining expense.

Therefore, Normal will be responsible for $18,600. The town had budgeted $25,000 and will save the remainder barring any other associated expenses.

Nord said the program showed a $19,000 profit last year and wondered why that amount has not been reduced from the cost. EAC director Michael Brown said costs for the collection events have risen and private donations that supplement public funding are variable.   

The new agreement also tasks the EAC with conducting a feasibility study for a permanent storage facility in McLean County.

Other business

Additional actions taken during the meeting included:

  • Renewing the annual technical planning services agreement with the McLean County Regional Planning Commission for $54,000, which is the same amount as last year and $5,500 less than the budgeted expense;
  • Conditionally approving a new plat and resubdivision of Heartland Bank’s property at the southwest corner of Fort Jesse Road and Susan Drive;
  • Renewing the town’s subscription to Microsoft Office software programs for three years through the state’s Joint Purchasing Program at an annual cost of $91,000; and 
  • Approving revisions to the municipal code concerning trees and shrubs.

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Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.
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