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Town Gets Update From Connect Transit, Fills Vacant Board Spot

Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne says the service may need to use $9.1 million in federal assistance to offset a potential lack of state funding.

Thorne said Connect Transit has no assurance the Illinois Department of Transportation will be able to provide its normal 65% reimbursement of expenses after September. IDOT is the bus service’s largest funding source.

“Due to the (COVID-19) pandemic, sales tax revenue has decreased as we’re well aware of,” Thorne said as part of a presentation during Monday night's three-hour Normal City Council meeting. “IDOT has informed downstate transit agencies, including Connect, that revenue is not known beyond our first quarter.”

In a series of appointments and reappointments to various boards later in the meeting, the council approved Mayor Chris Koos’ selection of Tim McCue to fill the town’s long vacant seat on the Connect Transit Board of Trustees.

Thorne said he feels state funding may be in jeopardy because Illinois is seeking $5 billion in federal pandemic relief that may or may not be approved. He also noted the state budget is contingent on passage of a graduated income tax.

While Connect Transit has been awarded the $9.1 million in federal money through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Thorne said any shortfall from the state may require the agency to tap into those funds.

“Connect may have to use all this CARES Act funding to continue operating if state funding is reduced,” he said.

Thorne updated the council on how Connect Transit has altered policies and procedures in response to COVID-19. Among them, buses are cleaned and disinfected every four hours, fixed-route buses are limited to 10 passengers, and face coverings and social distancing are required.

McCue serves as the area coordinator for Illinois State University Housing Services. According to a bio read by council member Kevin McCarthy, McCue has spent 20 years as an advocate, educator and public speaker on issues of accessibility, mobility and disability experience.

But his appointment did not come without questions from some council members, who raised concerns about the method and transparency of the selection process.

“We are the ones that are ultimately responsible; it’s not the mayor, it’s the town council as a whole,” said Stan Nord, who abstained during the roll call vote. “(But) we are just asked to approve who the mayor picks, and for me personally, I’m someone that I have to understand the issue before I give my vote.

“My vote is my word, is the way I look at it, and I just don’t feel comfortable essentially being asked to rubber stamp, especially for this issue because this has been such a hot topic.”

“Without having an opportunity to speak to this individual in advance, I don’t have any sense of whether or not I can feel comfortable that this person will in fact support some of the things that constituents have identified as priorities,” added Karyn Smith.

Koos said the Connect Transit board appointment became difficult as it turned into a “political hot potato.”

“The reason that that seat has been empty so long is because it has been so heavily politicized that frankly people I have reached out to to ask consideration to join this board have told me there was no way they would do it,” Koos said.

“I have been appointing people for 18 years, I have never been challenged on that process and tonight I am being personally challenged on my appointment to the board.”

Koos said if the council wishes to change the process for board appointments, it can be discussed at a member retreat.

Soccer club complex

Representatives of the Illinois Fire Juniors soccer club touted their plans for a 100-acre sports complex they hope to build in north Normal along Shelbourne Drive/Old Route 66 between Veterans Parkway and Towanda Avenue.

Proposed Illinois Fire Juniors sports complex in north Normal.
Credit WGLT

“We’re excited and ready to begin work on our future home, replacing Community Fields," said club president Tim Koch. “We know we have another step to take as far as the planning commission goes … but we are ready for Phase I.”

Club secretary Jeremy Kelley said the organization has received a lot of positive feedback since announcing the project last week. He said Illinois Juniors is not requesting any town funding, as the club has raised $3.5 million in cash, pledges and in-kind donations through a fundraising campaign.

“We’ve heard many more positives, we’re just trying to push along and keep this positive pace going,” he said. “But we know that we’re going to need help from the community, the business community and others out there, in order to get this to the finish line.”

Initial plans show the complex would be able to host other sports apart from soccer, such as football, lacrosse, rugby and cricket. During public comment at the start of the meeting, Matt Hawkins of the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau said the facility would fill a need for youth sports.

“A new complex would generate a substantial amount of economic impact through state, regional and national events,” said Hawkins, noting the CVB and Bloomington-Normal Area Sports Commission “fully support the development of this type of facility.

Sugar Creek stabilization

The council also approved awarding a $630,500 contract to Stark Excavating for a stabilization project on the north branch of Sugar Creek.

The project will add 2,300 feet of channel bank grading and reshape the embankments to improve flow along the section of the creek between Blair Drive and College Avenue. Other work will include pipe and culvert repairs and the removal of overgrown trees, brush and debris.

Stark submitted the lower of two bids. The work is expected to begin later this month and be completed this fall.

Other business

Additional action taken during the meeting included:

  • Approving the town’s amended Community Development Block Grant Citizen Participation Plan, as well as a revised Consolidated Plan for 2020-24 and an Action Plan for 2020-21. Public hearings on both filings held before the start of the meeting featured no discussion or public comments;
  • Authorizing annual support for the Small Business Development Center, increasing the town’s annual contribution to a budgeted amount of $45,000 through 2023;
  • Amending the town’s policy prohibiting sexual harassment to comply with a 2019 state law requiring independent review of allegations made by an elected official against another elected official; and
  • Voting 6-1 to deny a special use permit and variation to allow Journey Church to install a temporary, second free-standing sign along College Avenue, as recommended by both staff and the zoning board of appeals (Nord dissented).

Nord and Koos also butted heads early in the meeting when Nord pulled the regular filing of expenditures and payments from the omnibus agenda as he often does. After Nord questioned a $4,000 public transit payment and expenses related to the public relations director, Koos said it was not the time to revisit questions of policy.
Editor’s note: WGLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is chair of the Connect Transit board.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.
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